Cayden notices my car has developed a bruise, an indentation in the hood, just above the VW insignia.
“Where did that come from, Daddy?”
I really don’t care, had forgotten about it, but have to explain while Cayde and I drive the ten minutes to the Natural History Museum.
“Oh—it’s nothing, Dude.”
(It’s just an unseemly dent, not the end of the world)
“I was parked outside the market, and a guy with a big truck said he didn’t see my car—you know how those trucks sometimes have tire racks on the back?” I attempt a quick explanation.
Cayde’s playing with the AC vent while also surfing a hand outside the open car window—we are measures of inefficiency—and he answers: “Yeah? Go on.”
Story is this: a guy with an SUV reared into my car while trying to navigate out of a parking spot, and it was a panicked lady in a flowered frock who rushed into the market to tell me. To tell everyone actually.
“Does anyone own a gray Beetle?” she implores the backed-up line of patrons, and I’m holding an avocado and a six-pack of Le Croix.
I’m buying the pamplemousse variety of sparkling water, which could be a fine title for the lipstick on the lady’s cracked lips. We could also venture into ‘aubergine’ territory, were we to keep calling fruits by their gallic monikers, and lipsticks by their fruit counterparts.
“Fuck.” I slump my wares down. This obviously isn’t gonna end well. <Clean up on Aisle Three>
“Me. The Bug. That’s me,” I hang my head, then raise a hand as if still in third grade.
“Well, this man hit your car and he’s looking for you and I’m sorry and he’s looking for you. He’s out there,” she says pointing, “And he’s looking for you and I said I’d help.”
I almost want to grab her hands, because she’s pointing and having her point be a near Scarecrow gesture with this up and down shaking wrist, and a finger that could either be directing me north or south.
“He went thataway, or he could’ve gone thataway.”
“Thank you, Ma’am. I’ll be right back.”
“He’s out there!”
“I’m sure, Ma’am. I’ll be right back.”
There’s a Golden Retriever at the entryway and I give the dog an errant pat while I cross onto the sidewalk, doorway chime reliably signaling my exit. I look both left and right, then decide I just need to go check on my car. I’m expecting a sideswipe or something, a crumpled door.
It’s a good dent, certainly, just on the hood. I sigh. Not too bad.
The perp is one of those Toyota FJ6 numbers, a really obnoxious blue, that’s still parked in front of my car. I eye the tire rack, line it to the dent. It’s a casual case of 2008, me always driving something smaller than the next guy.
A man with a neat moustache and a neater khaki jacket bursts out of the next-door establishment, which happens to be an art-therapy studio.
I guess if you just hit a Bug, you’d imagine you’d be exchanging insurance information in oil pastel. I was at the corner grocer in my work clothes next to the cigarettes and Lotto tickets.
I point my beard at him—“I think you’re looking for me…? Lady in there said something.”
And the guy is so apologetic. He runs his hands in tight circles over fine-clippered temples. For the second time in five minutes, I have to say: “It’s alright.”
“I just didn’t see you,” he offers. He says some et cetera things. He has a pack of Marlboro reds in his jetted left breast pocket, but he doesn’t smell of tobacco.
“Your car—smaller, didn’t see it.”
We were parallel-parked. It would have been hard for him to return to his car, and not realize his boxed-in predicament, but I digress.
I thought instantly of the day when Jenn and I, six months shy of our wedding, drove back from a hospital after her mom’s surgery had failed. Some jackass backed into us though we’d all been queued up at a red light. We all had our blinkers on in this unspoken social agreement that—without any thought toward trickery—we were all going to be turning right. Said jackass broke the social contract, backed into us, decided to open his doors and travel on whatever brave vapors to greet my wife at the car window.
“Wow—we didn’t see you. Your car, ‘s just so small.”
Drunk Guy shrugged—his inebriation was obvious—he turned his head and scratched his nose while halfway inside Jenn’s driver-side door. He then rested his elbows on the windowframe.
He had an SUV, we were in a Nissan Sentra. But we were in all agreement, by manner of traffic light and blinkers in synch, just thirty seconds prior and before any bumpers needed meeting, that we were going forwards, then right. Rules of the road and all. Why was this incident necessary?
Reverse is not usually a direction you volunteer to go.
Drunk Guy sniffed, like some James Franco preview with a broken manner of speech and a purposefully unkempt mop of hair. He turned his head away, then back toward my wife as affect. James Franco is an awful actor; so was this guy.
“So sorry. Just such a bad day,” He then got brave, figuring an easy solution, “Hey—know what? I can pay you for your license frame. I think it’s the only damage.” He pretends to assess Jenn’s grille, his eyes not even making it past the left front tire.
“I can give you twenty bucks,” he sniffs, “Looks like you need to change out the license frame. I mean wow. Just didn’t see you there. SUCH a bad day.”
A twenty is pittance in comparison to a night in the tank, so it was easy arithmetic on Drunk Guy’s part. To his only credit, the only damage did wind up being just a dented license plate frame.
Then my wife did the proudest fiercest thing I’ve ever seen her do.
Cayden would call this ‘SAVAGE’ or whatever new slang it is when you burn someone, else kick karma aside like a bad habit.
My wife—she was wearing a butterfly dress and a cardigan—she stepped out of the car onto El Cajon Boulevard in front of the McDonald’s, just left of the Arco, my wife all of 5’4”.
She rose up, jutted her chin upward, slammed the door, and asked Drunk Guy, “Did your Mom just die today? Did you have to watch your Mom die today? TELL ME PLEASE about your bad day,” these last words said slow and with clenched teeth.
We had been up for hours in rooms with lilac air fresheners and a bountiful supply of Kleenex.
A surgeon had said, not an hour previous, “I’m sorry, but…” just like in a rerun of ‘Emergency’, or ‘St Elsewhere’, or ER’—any incarnation of those medical shows, where every fifteen minutes a white-coated actor with an aluminum clipboard and a failed mark in Method class, says, “We regret to inform you…”
Jenn tried to meet eyes with Drunk Guy. In this short period of time, the traffic light had already turned red again, my wife’s mother was stroking out in similar color, and the goddamn neon signs were buzzing by some magic of inert gas. Drunk Guy ran his fingers through his hair, looking sheepishly downward. He probably got laid a lot, with that hair, but my wife was meanwhile only interested in laying him into a grave-plot at this particular moment with the flashing of her eyes.
My wife gave him one last glare, moved to get back in the car, but then spun around one last time. She held out her palm.
“Hey–sure. You know what? Gimme those twenty fucking dollars.”
He stammered, “Wha…?”
“Give me those twenty fucking dollars. It was your idea.”
“Asshole.” And Jenn slammed the door.
Dave’s Flowers was open across the way, also with a neon sign buzzing, but who’s gonna remember the neon exclamation of flowers while people are meanwhile stopped speechless at the gas station near the intersection—having heard everything—people inching out of the Mickey D’s drive-thru, suddenly guilty of their nuggets and watching us pull away, with a dented license plate frame and a crumpled twenty thrown atop the console.
“Tell me please about your bad day.”
“We regret to inform you.”
Cayden and I try to find parking outside the Natural History Museum (the NAT), but there’s a carnival of catering trucks, guys offloading chairs and vases of fake flowers. There’s also a slog of Memorial Day tourists attempting to find parking spaces while simultaneously trying to navigate a different city. This cuts both their speed and ability in half.
There is a sudden slew of hazard lights and cars pulled to either side of the parking lot. I don’t think these people are actually waiting for parking spaces. They’re just suddenly automotive ostriches that need to put their Triple-A certified heads in the proverbial sand for a second. Which is to say, it’s busy.
“Goddammit. When I teach you how to drive, Cayden, don’t do that.” I’m gripping the wheel with one hand on twelve, referring to the Subaru Forester, which has suddenly stopped in the middle of the thoroughfare. I point and drink an iced coffee with the other hand, the one that’s supposed to be manning the two o’ clock position.
Twelve is the mean of ten and two, so mathematically I’m still in the right; these double-parked tourists, meanwhile, need both calculator and compass to negotiate a parking lot.
Cayden smiles—he’s a smart-ass—“’Course not Daddy. Instead I’ll just yell at people who break the driving laws, just like you do.”
I’m such a good example, sometimes, in being both right and wrong at once.
“Well, I don’t do that as much anymore,” I say contritely, nodding in a halfway contrite gesture, still with just one hand on the wheel.
“I know, Daddy,” he says smilingly, nonplussed. I take a sip of my drink and look at him out of the corner of my eye.
I don’t think he’s fucking with me, but you never can tell.
(He said earlier in the week, also while driving, about something he saw on ‘YouTube’:
“You know I can hear better than you. It’s science.”
I remind him that he likes Marshmelo and Ariana Grande. High court judges would grant me pardon and probably consolatory monies to boot.
“Not to be mean, Daddy,” and he always says this before being invariably uncouth, “You’re almost forty and I’m only nine, so I can hear the high-pitch things you can’t. Your ears can’t hear what mine do. It’s science.”
I could make a really snarky comment because every morning, it’s like he can’t hear my voice, particularly with regard to putting on shoes. 17,400 htz is the usual divide and—he’s correct—it is science, but my voice falls way below the threshold.
“There! Like that!” he suddenly says, pointing upwards, a sticky-haired, nine-year old Archimedes enjoying a eureka moment. “That noise!”
I shake my head while I pull up to a four-way. I wave on an unsure bicyclist.
“You’re making shit up, Kid.”
“No, no!—I could hear that. I bet you didn’t.”
“Those. Are. The. Brakes, Dude. I heard them, too.”
And I pump the pedal a hard second time as emphasis. The shoulder harness catches slightly as he chugs forward a little bit. I smile to myself.
“Guess the brakes need some work, Kid.”)
I have to pull around the Forester and I look longingly at the empty handicap stall just feet away from the museum. I actually have a handicap placard, but it’s only for when Finn’s with me, so says the law, so says my general conscience.
“Wish I could park there, Dude,” I still remark, being pretend wistful.
These tourists with their hazard lights, the offloads of—what’s that?—a potted fern tree? A faux Roman column? Delivery guys push random dollies through the parking lot, their cargo wrapped in pink bubble wrap.
“Why not?” Cayde shrugs.
Cayde—he’s usually the policeman in all this, well-versed on the handicap laws. He’s not the flight-risk, or the kid with extra genetic material. He usually eschews even a feint at cheating. We only use the placard when Finn’s in the car. PERIOD. It’s California state law, and Cayden’s, too.
I raise an eyebrow while pulling around the Subaru. A trademark of the gifted child is an ultimate and nagging sense of fairness. Fatal flaw, really.
Cayde continues: “If a policeman stops us, you can just tell him I’m autistic.” And I choke back a laugh and a gasp at once, because this is an awfully obtuse thing to say, and I stammer: “Wait-what?”
“Yeah—just say I’m autistic. Like that one student Mommy had,” and I think about lecturing him, but moral relativism is the other trait of gifted children, the trait that manifests when it’s fast and frustratingly realized that–wow—life really isn’t fucking fair. When cheating, slyly, and in small portions, is compensation for the bigger letdown that Lady Justice hasn’t really been blind all this time. She peeks with one eye out of that blindfold of hers. Karma’s supposed to be the bitch, but Lady Justice has a backroom reputation, as well.
Since we’re already cheating and listening to Eminem because Mommy’s not in the car (and we’re at that point in the song where Eminem says, “You’re pointless as Rapunzel with fucking cornrows/ You’re like normal, fuck being normal”) I, shrug, hang up the placard on the rear-view, and pull into the slot.
The engine ticks for a second while I sit, keys in hand.
“Cayden—you can’t say things like that. We’ve had so many conversations…You know that Down Syndrome and…You know about autism…You know…”
He looks at me, and this is the same kid who last week came to me upset because some Bad News Bear on the Little League baseball field said, “Hey—you’re that kid with the retard brother.”
He looks over at me, then looks down. We’re parked in a prime parking space at the NAT, and I fathom, for a second, just how confusing this all is for him. His hair falls briefly in front of his eyes and neither of us makes an attempt to brush the offending forelock away. I exhale and we both exit the car, the leather creaking guiltily, which I’m sure that as a forty year old, I can hear and—because science—my kid can’t.
The doors shut heavily.
Cayde rounds the car and inspects the hood again. He rubs the dent and—if he could whistle—might actually do so, like a charlatan mechanic surveying his prey. Selling a carburetor to a guy with a broken cigarette lighter.
“OoO–that’s a good one, Daddy.”
He says the same things when he regards my cuts and bruises from work, from when beaks do their damage. As a zookeeper, I’m obligated to say, “Anything with a mouth can bite, Dude.” It’s both punchline and truth. Don’t touch—you’ll get hurt.”
Or, at least, maybe you will.
Cayde looks up at me, squinting.
“You gonna get that fixed?”
I cross my arms, and regard the hood, pretending to really deliberate the whole thing with a puckered expression.
The statute of limitations is probably up on this one already because you’re supposed to call within twenty-four hours to make a claim. My car got bruised on Monday; it’s now Saturday. The guy was so nice and apologetic, too.
(“I just wanna make this right,” he said, while I shook his hand).
I finally smile, and drop my arms exaggeratedly. “Probably not, Kid. C’mon, let’s go.”
Jenn said, when I showed the car to her and waved off the damage, “Well we’re not Car People,” as if that explained every and all nonchalance. Probably did. Jenn drove around with a dented license plate forever, and I think we drank Drunk Guy’s twenty.
I try to explain to Cayde as we walk away from our illegal parking job:
“If I get it fixed”—and I think of my Bug on blocks, with its hood removed, and with all the estimates and invoices I’d have to sign—“Then that guy who hit me would have to pay a lot of money, and we’d have to pay money, and the people in charge of us paying money would make sure we’d both have to continue paying money…”
I know I’m not making sense to him.
“Make sense, Dude?”
Occasionally, and only occasionally, Cayde knows when to rhetorically surrender.
“Sure, Daddy.” He quickly grips my arm and says, “I love you.” He’s excited we’re going to the museum, so we walk away from the car, and I trust he’s happy.
The Subaru still has hazard lights blinking as if a parking space is going to open up soon.
“But…” Cayde says.
Dammit—always the ‘but.’
“But if you had a Lamborghini and got a dent, you’d fix it, right?”
We’re descending the stairwell to the entrance of the museum, which is actually on the basement level. The first floor has a T. rex sculpture, and the whole first floor is currently being decorated with fake trees and crepe paper. Post museum close, there’ll be a prom.
“If I could afford a Lamborghini, Kid, I wouldn’t have a Lamborghini.”
This is my best off-the-cuff and Mobius philosophy. Either that or a platitude you’d read on a Good Earth teabag. Take your pick which. Keep in mind, I’m a coffee guy.
Cayde jumps down three steps before grabbing the handle of the door, and I throw out my spent Americano while catching up. He’s quick to measure me up suddenly.
“You’re right, Daddy.” He affixes a hat to his head. “If I had a million dollars, I’d spend it on traveling the world and eating good food.” Then he opens the door to where the ankylosaurus statue resides and darts in.
I pause, door cocked. ‘Did I just teach a lesson, or get completely schooled?’ I can’t figure out if he’s being placative, or sarcastic.
These are the things parents have to worry about. Do I call this one into the as yet fictive Dad Insurance Co.? Give my SSN and offer up my parenting license as evidence I’m capable of doing this?
“Excuse me, Operator, I think my kid’s smarter than me. He also mentioned unattainable sports cars, and we live in a 900 sq. ft. bungalow.”
No-fault insurance was a popular concept when I was Cayden’s age. Sounds the easy solution. I walk into the museum like a flat tire.
I find Cayden by the Foucault pendulum, where a brass globe—suspended by a cable and artificially swinging in perpetual motion—methodically knocks over wooden dominoes. Cayde is hanging over the railing with his flat-brimmed cap on point, and he’s making like he’s going to try and keep the pendulum from moving.
“Dude, don’t,” and I yank him backwards by the belt loop. I jab at the sign that reads, ‘Don’t touch.’
I redirect: “What is the pendulum about?” (We’ve been here before, and we know the pendulum, the hall of skulls; we’ve gone through the photo exhibits where I hide the placards and quiz him: ‘What animal is this?’ while we circle the gallery, sometimes running. I point upwards at the suspended reproductions and he’ll say, “Megaladon. Gray whale.” These are easy games. He doesn’t read worth shit, but he knows his science.
“The pendulum? It means there’s gravity, that the earth is moving.”
“Yeah, but how, Kid?”
I’m not going to let him off easy.
“This stays in place,” he points vaguely at the pendulum, which is staid in its arc, “But the earth moves, and so the blocks get knocked down.”
Two blocks have already been knocked down. His is not the best explanation, but I say, “That’s right, Dude. Good job.”
He runs off to learn about tectonic plates and I don’t want to explain earthquakes today, still I do. This while Foucault’s pendulum proves, superfluously, metronomically, while trapped in harnessed motion, that the earth is spinning like fucking mad.
“Daddy, you probably shouldn’t talk like that,” Cayden says on the way home.
“You told me you were going to yell at cars, too, when you grow up.” I glance over at him. He’s smiling.
“Oh,” I smile while looking in the opposite direction. “You were being ironic.”
Welcome to the Big Spin, Kid; I easily blow the needless stop sign at the top of the hill.
Welcome to movement erasing meaning. I think you’re ahead of me on this one, Son.