“GET YOUR FOOT OFF THE GODDAMN CLUTCH”
His voice thunders, and he’s restrained in the passenger seat not by a seatbelt, but by gigantic dad hands braced against the dashboard, like he could bench press the car up the hill through sheer will, while I struggled behind the steering wheel of a shit brown Datsun hatchback, jerking up the steep dirt road like a roller coaster lurching toward a peak trying desperately not to plummet backwards – where the barn, fields, and horses shrank to Fischer Price replicas in my rearview mirror.
“Take your foot off the-goddamn-clutch,” he spit the words “god-damn-clutch” like a sputtering exhaust, loud and shocking in sharp staccato – not for the first time, or second or tenth, but every single time my navy Ked floated near the elevated rubber pedal, instead of the smooth quick-step my dad taught: press, release, floor. “See, Kath? It’s like breathing. Don’t overthink it.”
I was 10.
Maybe 12 but I highly doubt it because by 12 I was driving any stickshift, anywhere, so probably 10.
Regardless, I was clearly too young to drive, yet here I was, on the steep laneway to learn how to stop and go on an impossible incline.
Without riding the goddamn clutch.
I could already drive a manual stick shift – even knew how to jump-start a car like a magician. But this, this dead stop on a steep hill was impossible, my hands slippery, clutching the pleather steering wheel, the hill so steep my sweaty thighs kept sliding backwards, so I had to pull myself forward so my feet could reach the gas and brake, and skim the clutch I was forbidden to ride.
“You can do it, Kath,” he encouraged. “Once you can do this, you can do anything.”
Once you can do this, you can do anything.
The anything he wanted me to do, was help drive the junky cars he’d buy out of the Pennysaver or classifieds, fixer-uppers he would then tow them home, plates or no plates, license or no license. He needed a driver, and that driver was me.
My dad was a motorhead, gearhead, grease monkey, buying and fixing cars his entire life. He was a math professor by day – but he’d fix and tinker cars every chance he could, spending weekends at garages around town, at NAPA auto parts, talking horsepower and torque with anyone who would listen. He smelled like 10w40, TurtleWax and ArmorAll – all the time.
He’d search for his favorite – broken down, forgotten Porsches – old speedsters, coupes, cabriolets – and when discovered rotting in a barn someplace – this is where I came in – he’d tether the prize to a winter-beater truck with a scratchy rope as thick as my scrawny leg, one end looped around the undercarriage of the treasured clunker, the other to the back of a Sanford & Son pick-up.
Then like a Dachshund slinky-pull-toy, he leading in the truck, me behind the wheel of the latest jalopy, we would inchworm – pull and push through country roads – staying off the main drags, away from the cops – back home, where the latest clunker would bounce into the driveway, and, if my mom knew, be parked proudly out front next to the other shells, but more often than not, tugged out back, behind the house, over the knolls, into the tree line, like we were hiding evidence from the cops – or my mother. Our back fields were littered with automotive carcasses in varying states of decay awaiting their time in his garage.
You got this — gas-gas-gas!
“Foot off the clutch, more gas now, easy, eeaaassssyyyy,” he coaxed, his deep dad voice, oozing encouragement, a slow rolling boil, and before I knew it, we were moving forward, not back — “You got this, gas gas gas!”
Gravel spun out the back dust-cropping the road behind us, the engine roaring as we lurched up the hill, my dad erupting in joy, his hands off the dashboard and wrapped around me, blocking my view of the road ahead, clapping the roof of the Datsun in an explosion of joy — hooting and hollering prouder than proud, as we spun to the top of the hill and headed home.
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