Seventies Celebrities, Chris Gavaler

Stick shift

Wynne Hungerford

Jessie was still in bed when her dad pulled up. It was eight o’clock in the morning and she was supposed to be awake and dressed already so they could go to the mountains and spend the day kicking around, a phrase her dad liked to use, but she hadn’t made a move yet. Her dad honked in the driveway, then Jessie’s cell phone rang on the bedside table. She silenced it and burrowed under the covers.

Her mom came into the bedroom and said, “Your father’s here.”

When Jessie didn’t respond or show signs of life, her mom sat on the edge of the bed and said, “You’re not fooling anyone.”

Jessie said, “Tell him I don’t want to go.”

“I’m not telling him anything.”

“Mom.”

“Honey,” she said. “You’ll be home before you know it.” Then she stuck her hand under the covers and scratched the bottom of Jessie’s foot. Jessie shrieked and then flung the covers off the bed. She muttered, “Fine,” and her mom said, “I can’t hear you,” and Jessie said, “I’m getting up.”

Jessie changed into clothes she wouldn’t mind getting dirty and then put on the hand-me-down hiking boots that had previously belonged to her mother. The boots were soft and flexible and still water-resistant after all these years. She brushed her teeth and, before heading to the kitchen, grabbed an elastic hair tie out of the mother-of-pearl on her dresser dish that held her little earrings, necklaces, and bobby pins. She went into the kitchen, where her mother was drinking coffee, probably her third or fourth cup already, and held up the hair tie. At twelve years old, Jessie still hadn’t mastered the art of pulling her hair into a ponytail. Her ponytails were the messiest of all the girls in gym class and even Dallas, a boy who had long flowing hair, could do it better than her.

With a few twists of the hair tie, Jessie’s mom had her hair whipped into a perfect ponytail. “Are you getting breakfast on the way?”

Jessie shrugged.

There were three honks from the driveway and her mom said, “That’s the most impatient man I ever met in my life.” She rushed to make sandwiches out of graham crackers and peanut butter, each with a dash of cinnamon, and then put them in a plastic baggie. Jessie grabbed the bag, took a deep breath, and went out the kitchen door. She didn’t say goodbye. She didn’t say thank you. This was her first outing with her father since he’d moved out and her parents had started the divorce proceedings. He’d come over to eat supper once or twice, to fix the garbage disposal when it quit working, and to bring Jessie her birthday present, but this was her first time being alone with him in three months.

In the driveway, her dad leaned out of the driver’s side window and tapped his watch. He drove an old, dinged-up Ford. She’d once heard him brag that the property tax on the truck was only sixty dollars. The seat was covered in a dark teal material that stuck to your legs and got scalding hot in the sun. Jessie got in and closed the door.

He said, “I honked.”

 She said, “I heard.”

“Is something wrong with your phone? I was calling you.”

“It works.”

Her dad shook his head. “Okay, then.” It looked like he hadn’t gotten a haircut since he’d moved. His hair was the longest she’d ever seen it. It grew well over his ears and down into a little point at the back of his neck. His hair was a dark copper color and the ends were beginning to turn blond. Jessie flipped the end of her ponytail over her shoulder and checked the color of her hair, which now that she’d been apart from him for some time, was clearly the same color as his.

*

They headed north on Highway 25 with the windows cracked. He asked if she was going to eat the graham crackers and when she said no, he held out his hand and waited for her to give him one. He kept holding out his hand for more until they were gone and then Jessie put the empty bag, streaked with peanut butter, in the glove box. That tiny compartment was packed with road atlases, napkins, ketchup packets, mustard packets, salt and pepper packets, Chick-fil-A sauce, a rusted pocketknife, a tin of Skoal, toothpicks, matchbooks, and a handful of loose BBs that rolled around when he turned off the highway.

The mountain property was a stone’s throw from the North Carolina state line, and there was little in the way of towns or developments nearby. At the gate, Jessie had to get out of the truck, unlock and relock the gate once her father had driven through, and then get back in the truck. The road leading up to the property was very steep. Most of it was covered in gravel, although the steepest portion was paved and in that stretch Jessie could look out the window and see the mountainside giving way beside them, a hundred-foot drop into a deep ravine. She gripped the door handle.

They parked at the top of a ridge that overlooked low, rolling mountains. They could see distant power lines strung like gold thread through the trees and a hawk skimming the wind. They got out of the truck and Jessie’s dad made a show of breathing the clean mountain air.

She kicked the ground and said, “What am I supposed to do?”

He said, “You could help me dig up a stump. Or cut some boards. I’ve got a lot of boards that need cutting.”

“No, thanks,” she said.

He pulled out a fishing rod from the back of the truck, then lifted the seat inside and took out a BB gun and an old paperback of The Lords of Discipline by Pat Conroy. He said, “Here’s your options.”

She asked what the book was about, but when her dad told her it was about The Citadel, a military college he seemed to admire, even though he had never graduated from college himself, she rejected it immediately. She asked what she was supposed to shoot with the gun and he picked up a few empty Bug Light cans from the truck bed. She didn’t feel like shooting his old beer cans, so she took the fishing rod. There was a path that went down the ridge to a creek, and he handed her a tiny plastic case full of fishing flies. She took the equipment and started down the path, remembering the way from the last time she’d been to the mountains, back when her mom had come along, too. They’d gone hiking, then cooked hot dogs over a fire and camped out beneath a clear sky.

Her dad said, “Holler if you need me. I’ll hear the echo.”

*

She followed the trail at first, which was full of roots and forced you to pay attention to every step, and then she reached the stack of rocks, which signaled that it was time to turn into a grove of rhododendron. She had to duck in order to navigate through the trees. The canopy of leaves grew overhead and she yelped when cold drops of water dripped on her head or whenever insects brushed her arms or legs. About thirty minutes later, the air became very cool and she reached the creek.

There were boulders covered in moss with spring water flowing over and around them. Jessie found a rock to sit on and took the little plastic case of flies out of her pocket. She picked one at random, because the various shapes, sizes, and types of flies meant nothing to her, and she tied it onto the end of the line with a couple of knots. She used a pair of little scissors that had been in the box to cut the excess line then admired her handiwork before she dropped it into the pool at her feet. The water wasn’t very deep, only three or four feet, but this seemed like the most promising spot since everywhere else was so shallow, just that clear, biting water running a reckless course over dark rocks.

Jessie sat for a while. As the sun moved across the sky, the spots of water dappled with light shifted in time and space. She didn’t know how many hours had passed because she made no attempt to measure the passage of time. She looked up through the trees, up to the mountain ridge where her father was working on whatever task he’d set himself to. As if on cue, she heard his voice. The sound echoed down the mountain and it was her name that he was saying. Jessie. Jessie. Jessie. There was an urgency she’d never heard before.

She reeled in the line and found a trout on the hook. In all that time, she had never felt a tug or pull. She hadn’t even known the fish was there. It was so small that the entirety of its body fit in her hand. As it lay there, over her lifeline, over her heartline, she was able to see the pale pink stripe on its side. She got the hook out of its mouth and dropped the fish into the water. It disappeared immediately and she already missed what it felt like to hold the creature in her loose grip and feel its soft, heaving belly.

She picked up her things, following the trail back up the mountain. She moved quickly, never breaking into a full run, but jogging as best she could without tripping over the rocks and roots. Once she got up to the property, she saw the old Ford sitting on the ridge. She saw the little shed off to the side, where her father kept wood and tools. She saw the other little shed, where an old tractor was kept. She saw the area that was staked off, where he hoped to build a cabin one day with all of the wood he was accumulating. The driver’s side door of the truck was open and she saw her father’s leg hanging outside. She ran to him. “Daddy?”

She hadn’t called him that in a long time. It slipped out of her mouth without her even thinking about it.

He held a towel to the side of his head. Both the towel and his hand were soaked with blood. The truck was already running. He’d been waiting for her.

As soon as she saw him, she took a step back. She clutched the fishing rod with both hands, raising it to her chest as if to protect herself. She asked what happened and he said that he’d been in the shed with all of his wood and one of the boards at the top of the stack had fallen off, coming down on him in an instant. He turned and managed to cover his eyes, but the board swept down the side of his head and had almost taken his ear off.

“We have to go to the hospital,” he said. She threw the rod in the back and got in the passenger’s seat. At first, she stayed as close to the door as possible. Then her father said that if they were going to get down the mountain safely, she would have to help him. The old Ford was a stick-shift. He would have to hold the towel to his head with one hand to try and stop the bleeding, and steer with his other hand. That meant he needed Jessie to scoot closer and change gears for him.

“You know about stick shifts?”

She shook her head.

“It’s not that hard. I’ll tell you what to change it to and when to change it. All you have to do is listen to my directions. Okay?”

She nodded.

“It’s alright. I’m gonna be alright.”

She stared at him expressionless.

“Now,” he said, “grab the gear shift.”

She did what she was told.

He said, “Shift from neutral to first gear.”

She shifted to first gear.

He gave it a little gas and the truck rolled forward. He drove through the plot where he hoped to build a little cabin one day, making a big circle through that area of flattened land. Jessie glanced out the window and saw the view that would be visible from the front porch of the cabin, if there was a cabin. Her father had already cleared some of the trees so that you could see the mountains rolling below, a rise and fall of deep blue-green. They continued down the driveway, the clearing was behind them. All she saw was trees.

“Second gear now,” he said. “Okay––1, 2, 3.”

She moved to second gear.

“We’ll stay in second ‘till we’re at the bottom. We don’t want to pick up too much speed going down the driveway.”

Her father steered with one hand. Blood made a pat pat sound as it dripped on the seat. They went down the mountain, him steering around the curves in the road, pumping the brakes going down the steepest section that was paved, and Jessie keeping her hand on the hard, round, lifeless gear shift the entire time. Never once did she bring herself to look out the windows where she would have been able to see the steep drop.

In barely a whisper, she said, “Is it still there?”

“What?” he asked. “My ear?”

The gear shift felt like a pool ball in her hand.

“It’s still hanging on. I think they’ll be able to reattach it.” He sniffed hard. “Let’s hope.”

“Does it hurt?”

“I can handle it.”

Once they got to the bottom of the mountain, she had to shift gears again so he could stop the truck and she could get out and open the gate again. Once through, she helped shift gears as they gained more and more speed and got on the highway, heading for the nearest hospital in Hendersonville.

At the hospital, they parked the truck together and headed for the emergency room entrance. Jessie kept some distance between herself and her father. She glanced at him every now and then, but didn’t touch him. There was blood down the side of his shirt and he leaned to one side when he walked as if leaning into the pain. There wasn’t much of a crowd, so he was seen within forty-five minutes. Jessie stayed in the waiting room because her father didn’t want her to see what it looked like. “I’m not calling you a baby, alright?” he said. “I’m just saying it’s an image that’d probably get stuck in your head and I’d rather avoid that if we can.”   

He was taken down the hallway to an exam room. Jessie sat in an uncomfortable chair, waiting. Her hand, which had held first a fish and then a gear shift knob, was still in a fist.       

Across the room, there was an old man with his hand on his chest. A woman in her late twenties carrying a can of Diet Coke and a Milky Way sat down beside him. “The pain still there?” she asked, and the old man gave a little nod. It could have been a heart attack or maybe something that happened in his life, some rift between people that hurt him equally as bad.

*

It was late in the afternoon when they pulled into Jessie’s driveway. They’d stopped at a Taco Bell on the way home. Jessie had packed the empty wrappers into a ball and set the ball on the seat between her and her father. He asked if she wouldn’t mind taking it inside so the smell wouldn’t linger in the cab. She held the ball in her hands, pressing it into an even tighter ball, hearing the sound that the wrappers made, the anguish of being pressed tighter and tighter, of being condensed, managed, squeezed.

There was a bandage on his ear now and the bloody towel had been left at the hospital to be disposed of. A biohazard.

“I’ll be damned,” he said, laughing. “I guess that was your first driving lesson. How do you think it went?”

With only one ear in good condition, she wasn’t sure how well he could hear. “Fine,” she said loudly.

“You don’t have to holler. I can still hear, you know.”     

“I didn’t know.”

“So serious. I’m just teasing.” He reached over and shook her arm. “Thanks for helping me back there. You did good today.”

Jessie could see the blinds part in the living room window. She opened the passenger door and stepped outside.

“You saved me.” He smiled. “Without you, I’d have been toast.”

She said, “I hope it feels better.”

“Oh, don’t worry about me,” he said. “I’ll call you this week?”

She nodded. “Bye.”

Jessie went into her room, crawled on her bed, and sat the ball of wrappers in front of her. She could smell the fried tortillas, the ground beef, the tang of sour cream. Her mom came into the room, too, and asked how it had been. She gave the wrapper ball a funny look and then tossed it into the little trash can beside Jessie’s desk. She looked at the trail of dirt crumbs on the flooring, leading up to the pair of hiking boots that had been kicked off, and grimaced. When Jessie didn’t offer an answer, her mom said, “You don’t know how it was?”

Jessie explained that her father’s ear had nearly been torn off by a piece of falling wood. She’d helped him drive down the mountain, operating the gear shift the whole time, and went with him to the emergency room in Hendersonville. Her mom’s eyes widened as she heard what had happened.

She said, “I should call him.”

Jessie shook her head. Her chin started to tremble and her eyes filled with tears. “Don’t,” she said. “Don’t.”

Her mother grabbed her hands. “What is it?” she said.

Jessie didn’t answer.

“Was it scary? Is that why you’re upset?”

Jessie said, “He said that I saved him.”

Her mom brushed a piece of hair that had fallen out of Jessie’s ponytail behind her ear. “That’s good, honey. You should be proud of yourself for helping your daddy.”

Jessie pushed her mom’s hand away. She started to sob. “I wish I hadn’t saved him. I wish he was dead. I wish he’d died and I wish I’d killed him.”

“You don’t mean that,” her mother said.

“I do.”

“You only get one daddy,” she said, holding up a finger, “and no matter how mad you are at him, he’s the only one you’ve got.”

“You wish it, too,” Jessie said. “I’ve heard you say it.”

 Her mother’s eyes remained fixed, unblinking. “You heard me say that?”

 “I know you meant it,” Jessie said.

“What else did you hear me say?”

“A lot of things.”

There was a vent in Jessie’s bedroom. Before her father moved out, her parents often argued and wished each other dead. They had discussed the manner in which they hoped the other would die, like car wrecks and fires and lightning strikes, and also the different instruments that could use to kill one another, like hammers and axes and the Colt .45 that was kept on the top shelf of the master bedroom closet. Back then, when all three of them had lived together in the house as a family, Jessie had heard everything through the vent.

“But who hears me?” Jessie said, wiping her eyes. She hugged her knees to her chest. “I caught a fish today.”

Her mom leaned over, resting her forehead on the heel of her hand. “Tell me,” she said.

“There was a pink stripe on it,” Jessie said, and then drew an imaginary line on her skin. The tears stopped flowing and she swallowed. “Mom?”

“Yes?”

“Can we paint my room?”

They looked around the pale green room. It had been that color before her parents even bought the house thirteen years earlier. It had been that color for what felt like forever.

Her mom nodded. “Yes,” she said. “We can.”

Wynne Hungerford’s work has appeared in Epoch, Subtropics, Blackbird, The Brooklyn Review, American Literary Review, Iron Horse Literary Review, The Normal School, and SmokeLong Quarterly, among other places. She received her MFA from the University of Florida. Learn more at www.wynnehungerford.com