yesterday my dad, mom, sister autumn and i drove to pendleton, s.c., to deliver christmas to my great-aunt annie, her daughter carmen, my aunt maria and cousin jalen (who has the same exact birthday and name as washington heights jalen!), my uncle rodney who is my age, carmen’s daughter nikisha, and then mama stevens. my sister april would have come but it was her anniversary with her man stanley – she gave him his first taste of mexican!
now to understand my life, i have to deal with the fact that in the real world i am struggling to be an environmentalist, and in s.c. we are driving around in a borrowed s.u.v. because that was the available vehicle, having been left by another aunt when she and her husband deployed to korea. at one point yesterday we were literally driving around in the s.u.v. looking for wal-mart and i had to just laugh. but before that! before that we pulled into the burger king parking lot and the cable connecting the um – the part of the car that goes P R N D 1 2 – the cable that connects that stick part disconnected from the part underneath that makes the car go forward or backward or stop. it all got stuck, we couldn’t pull the keys out, we couldn’t stop the car.
first, three old and smiling black men came over and suggested rocking the car. they hopped on the back bumper and we womenfolk sat inside jouncing about. the car was unconvinced to shift in any way.
we then called a family member who knows everyone in town and, possibly related, has had a serious history with crack – smart woman, bad habit – and she pointed us to the local legend buddy, who – among other things – was mayor for four terms. we’re waiting a few minutes later, and my father goes in the burger king to grab a burger, and while he’s gone a large white hobbit character pulls up, grilling the car. without a word the hobbit-man jumps into our car: ‘you all hyere kent staht this hyere cah?’
we nod as one. shortly thereafter the hobbit-man’s son pulled up in a truck.
‘get under that the-yere hood son’
‘you got yo foot on de braake?’
‘you know da-yum well i do’
‘okay try that!’
the car leapt back against the curb.
‘da-yum son that the-yere weren’t drive’
‘no suh, get yo foot on de braake’
‘i got my da-yum foot on the da-yum braake! mumble mumble’
some grumbling under the car. i’m sitting in the front seat, my mother and baby sister in the back, my father standing outside the s.u.v. with his hands on his hips and a cooling burger in a bag. i am convinced my father has a travel jinx – no trip with him has less than a two hour delay.
‘now try that!’
buddy lays his foot down and the car leaps forward.
‘ok the-yere you go suh. just go forward only, and do not stop thisa he-ere cah til you get to mike’s down the roah. don’t get into a backin up siteeation.’
my dad – ‘how much do i owe you for this?’
‘nuthin, merry christmas’ – and buddy and his son roll ahead of us down the street, pointing us to mike’s.
now mike is a whole other kind of white southern man. he looks like his nickname is harley and sure enough he has a sign up in his transmission shop – ‘american by birth, biker by choice’. when we first pull up he won’t talk to us or look at us, none of his help came to work today and he’s stressed. somehow my dad convinces him to help us cause we have come to this town solely to deliver christmas!
cracking no smiles and giving no direct eye contact, he has us pull up into his shop, and while we look at each other like what now?, the s.u.v. gets jacked up off the ground with us all in it. before too long another car pulls up behind us and out gets a family friend of my dad’s – boot mccormell. my dad took boot’s sister to prom (‘they hated each other since the 7th grade’, ‘then we liked each other but couldn’t ask’, ‘and our mother’s got together and schemed to tell them each that the other one had asked’, ‘so we came up to each other in school the next day and said ‘i accept!’ – ‘hahahaha!’), and now boot has been sent to ‘rescue’ us. but rather than driving us to the grocery store to do the christmas grocery shopping, he tells us funny stories about my dad’s childhood. and then more stories about boot’s estranged wife – ‘oh she wanna come home but she got too much pride in her yet, she know she act wrong, i just say come on home but act right!’
he left, then a cousin with 6 kids who i’d never met before drove up to pick up his part of the presents. he also didn’t drive us anywhere. but biker mike, who turned out to be a one-armed biker mechanic with a vibe like clint eastwood had in million$baby, fixed the car right up. by the end he was even giggling. he was great.
finally, after starting the journey at 10 in the morning, we got to the grocery store at 5:30, delivered the groceries at 6:30, drove around in the busted s.u.v. looking for wal-mart at 7:30 while trying to explain the transit strike to my dad.
now mike had told us that buddy was into fishing for catfish. my dad had spent the afternoon saying he wanted to buy buddy something to thank him. he had paid and tipped mike well, but what to get the large white diabetic non-drinking hobbit angel? i told my dad it was fine, accept the gift. but then in wal-mart, when we split up, each with a piece of the list of gifts to pick up, both my dad and i also slipped into the fishing section. i got catfish bait, my dad got a reel and some line. when we got back together we just laughed.
and finally, what we came for, we got to aunt annie’s house and set up a christmas tree and put presents under it. my aunt annie’s house is a church charity project, falling apart and pasted together and with a soundtrack of its own age and pain…and she loves it. so many children have been raised there by default…this church said they were helping, but they just threw paint on the outside and should be embarrassed about how they left the inside. this year my dad and his 6 brothers and sisters got together to put a new bathroom in..and last night that house was full of laughter and food and presents and jalen running around trying to peek at his presents and smiles all over…and it was wonderful.