Suspension

For two weeks each summer, Dad would take me into a gas station in Milwaukee or San Antonio or Raleigh-Durham and he’d say:

“Go ahead, find the ugliest thing you can.”

We’d both do it. Maybe it would be three in the morning or maybe nine at night. It didn’t make any difference. When I left Mom behind in Fort Wayne and drove around with Dad and his monster truck team, it was all about having a good time and searching for ugly things and crushing cars beneath Behemoth’s giant wheels.

Last year, a few weeks after I’d turned eleven and Dad forgot the birthday card, we rolled into a gas station outside of Buffalo and I found a plastic, candy-filled shrunken head that squirted red goo from its eye sockets. It cost two ninety-nine and was much uglier than the green-colored ketchup Dad found beside the hot dog rack. We walked to the counter, and Dad laid down a five-dollar bill and some change and looked the cashier straight in the eye.

“My son here would like your finest shrunken head.”

The woman—she looked like somebody’s grandmother—took the money and didn’t play along. So we walked outside and squeezed that shrunken head and squirted eye goo into our mouths.

Dad said, “What do I tell you? Good things come in ugly packages, right?” and I laughed and laughed and dripped red all over the sidewalk.

We climbed Behemoth’s steps and drove 70 miles an hour to try to keep up with the team. Rich Mitch and Kruger drove the trailer filled with the spare suspensions and coil springs. In red spray paint, the word “Behemoth” was stenciled along the side of the trailer. Dad always made it a point to drive right behind them so the passing cars could identify who we were.

“Easy publicity,” Dad assured me, “plus, that’s good teamwork, sticking together like that.”

Back when they were divorcing, Mom sat me on the bed and said, “I’m sorry, Frankie. I can’t understand why your father needs to spend so much time with those men.”

“Because they’re his team,” I explained. “That’s how monster trucks work.” I tried to tell her about all the wear-and-tear that comes with each rally, and how professionals like Bob Chandler’s Bigfoot and the Dane brothers’ Awesome Kong have teams much bigger than Dad ever would; how Dad needed to make up for lost time.

“I mean, he’s just starting out, right Mom? Sometimes they don’t even have his picture in the program. He’s got some major work to do.” Nothing Dad and I said ever made any sense to her. She retreated to the bathtub.

*

After Rich Mitch invested in Dad and bought Behemoth, it was just a matter of time before he quit his job at Steel Dynamics and began drawing fuel converters full-time in the garage. A month of truck modifications and then they hit the circuit, slipping into the lineups every chance they got.

Once every two weeks or so, he’d call me from the road. Usually he called on the Sunday following a Saturday night rally when he was still pretty juiced from the show. Mom would listen in on the phone in the kitchen.

“So we’re out in Carbondale now. Had a helluva run last night. Drew in about a thousand people.”

“Were there really a thousand people?”

“That’s what they’re saying at least.”

“So how much money did you take?” I listened to him roll a piece of hard candy around in his mouth.

“Aww…I don’t know. Mitch takes most of it to finance the tour. Plus we busted up a fuel line so we’re getting that repaired later today.”

He cleared his throat.

“But we’re doing all right, pal. Never fear.”

“All right. I won’t.”

He clicked his candy into the phone.

“So sixth grade, huh? What do sixth graders do these days?”

“I don’t know,” I groaned. “A lot of scientific notation. Oh, and we dissected a cow eye, but really, the teacher did it and we all kind of watched. But there was a lot of gushing. It was pretty gross to see it gushing all over like a smashed grape or something.”

“Oh, yeah?” he said, uninterested. “Well, tell me this: do sixth graders still think monster trucks are cool?”

He expected my typical, “Heck yeah! Sixth graders worship monster trucks,” but I only gave him a, “Yeah, most kids seem to think they’re still okay.”

“Okay, huh?” he paused. “All right then. I was going to say maybe I could drop by the school sometime and….”

“Hi, Roger,” Mom broke in.

“Vanessa?” he asked. He chuckled. “How long you been on the phone, darlin’?”

“Frankie’s got to go to bed soon. He has a science quiz tomorrow.”

“Oh, I see. Scientific notation, huh?” I didn’t tell him that was math. He cleared his throat and cracked down on the candy.

“Well, listen, while I have you both here, we booked the Fort Wayne rally on June 15th. A Saturday. School should have let out,
right?”

“We get out in a month,” I told him.

“Great, so that should work out just right then. We’ll do the show, then maybe a bit of touring. We have a Des Moines rally set for the weekend after that, Frankie. It’d be a good time for you to come along if you’re interested.”

I said sure, that everything sounded great, and Mom agreed, but said we’d have to talk about it.

Everyone hung up.

Humming, I walked to the refrigerator and poured juice over a glass of ice. It popped. Mom walked in a few steps behind me and reached for a bag of fruit snacks from the cupboard.

“I won’t get my hopes up,” I informed her. “Don’t worry.” Mom stuck a gummy into her mouth and chewed, then settled on the nearby couch and reached for the remote. She crossed her legs.

“Your father may be a disappointment, but he’s not going to disappoint you,” she promised. She flipped to a game show.

“You got to remember, Frankie, they already scheduled the rally. So contractually, he doesn’t have much of a choice.”

*

School ended, and we didn’t hear from Dad until the day of the rally, when he called to say he had tickets waiting for us at the box office right outside the Memorial Coliseum.

“A pair of ’em,” he said, “so tell your mother she can come too if she wants. But don’t let her bring some hot date and leave you at home,” he joked. I promised I wouldn’t let that happen.

I dressed in my jeans and a specially made maroon Behemoth shirt that Mitch had ordered back when they were first starting out. He’d paid for 500 shirts and promised they’d sell like hotcakes. They never did. Mitch sold me mine for three dollars, and I knew they had about ten boxes more in the trailer.

I was brushing my hair when Mom walked in.

“Ready to hit the road?”

She looked nice in her sparkly dress and nylons. Nobody ever dressed that way for rallies, but I didn’t tell her. I didn’t want to make her feel dumb.

“You look…nice,” I tried. She rolled her eyes.

“It’s just a simple dress, Frankie.”

When we arrived, we went straight to the box office to pick up the tickets. They were right where he said they’d be.

We sat in section 19, row D, seats L and M. Not bad seats, but not the best. I peered out at the dirt track inside the coliseum, and also, at all the dead cars waiting to be crunched.

“So now your father comes on and drives the big wheels over the cars, right?” Mom asked, picking at her nails.

“Well, sort of. But also, at the end, they do these freestyle stunts which is the best part.”

“What do you mean?” She glanced up, staring as the dust rose from the broken cars.

“It’s like ballet for trucks. They do the coolest stunts they can think of. Things you wouldn’t even believe trucks could do.”

We were some of the first people to arrive, but the place began to fill within minutes. Music thudded from the speakers as bearded, chewing men guided their families to their seats, glancing down at tickets while they gripped popcorn and soft drinks in the crevices of elbows and armpits. With five minutes until show time, the lights dimmed, and red and blue spotlights flashed around the crowd.

Everyone cheered and pumped their fists and risked spilling popcorn.

The coliseum grew dark. I heard Mom sigh and saw the green glow of her watch. Then a low hum flooded the speakers, and the spotlights returned, and the music screeched, and four monster trucks thundered onto the track. Groaning and barreling, they skittered around the track and reared up on their back wheels. Bigfoot was there, as were Jupiter and Thor, and there, driving the red and white truck, was my father in Behemoth.

I could see Dad’s shadow inside the cab. He was wearing his matching helmet and was strapped in all kinds of criss-crossing harnesses, his body bouncing, a rag doll as he jolted through the jumps.

After a few laps, all the trucks halted, and then Thor made a leap over a ramp and landed on some old Toyotas. He flipped upside down and landed on the top of the truck cab and bounced, then righted himself. His engine stopped. Mom raised her eyebrows and leaned forward.

“Wow. That looked like a bad one. Is he going to be okay?”

“It’s called Remote Ignition Interrupter,” I shouted. “The engine turns off automatically when the truck feels like the driver’s lost control.”

“The truck can feel that?” Mom asked.

“Oh, yeah. Trucks feel all sorts of things. It’s how they’re built.”

I explained Behemoth’s special modifications: the TCI race converter, the aluminum transfer case.

“And Behemoth’s even got 23 degree flotation tires and these shocks and suspensions that…that dull the impact so you don’t have to feel as much.” I shouted and she tucked her ear in close, nodding. A moment later she took out her compact and glanced at herself in the mirror.

Behemoth followed Thor in the freestyle, and I grabbed Mom’s hand as Dad took center arena. Dad drove her hard, testing the brakes with a few sideswiping donuts before flattening an entire stack of Hondas. During the landing, the crowd went nuts, and men stuck fingers to their lips and whistled things like, “Now that’s a crusher!” and “I’ll be damned!” I tried hard not to brag he was my father.

On the far side of the track, two semitrailers were neatly stacked atop one another. There were cars everywhere—most of them flattened—but the trailers remained untouched. Dad continued squealing out under the golden spotlight as the crowd cheered, whistled, and waved their glow-sticks in the air. The announcer’s booming voice said something I couldn’t quite catch, and I listened as the music grew intense and the lights swirled. More announcing, more booming, and I heard “Prepare yourselves for…the double semi catapult!” The crowd barked. I squinted and leaned back uncomfortably.

“The double semi what?” Mom asked, pulling a stick of gum from her purse.

“Catapult. It’s like jumping over eight cars.”

“Eight, huh?” Mom said, blowing a bubble. “Sounds like a lot.”

I clasped my hands tight, whitening the knuckles.

A moment later, Dad pressed down hard on the pedal. I leaned forward and tried to make out the shadow of his helmet. He hit the ramp and the truck sprang up, the suspensions rocking the cab until liftoff. Behemoth screeched over the steepest part of the ramp and left gravity far below. The wheels spun in the musty air as the crowd turned silent, watching. They were red-faced and biting at straws. The truck flew for ten feet, fifteen feet, even. Popcorn crumbled in fists. Dropped glow-sticks clicked down the sticky cement steps.

One giant spotlight remained focused on Behemoth, and it was all so quick I couldn’t even make out Dad’s small shape lost inside the mesh and harnesses. He soared, and he just kept soaring until Behemoth’s front end nosedived and the tires smashed into the top of the second trailer, pushing him back. He hadn’t cleared it. The truck absorbed the hit. I watched Dad’s shadow jerk backward as the truck returned to earth.

Behemoth’s shocks took most of the hit, and at least he stayed upright. The loudspeakers played the high-pitched hyena laughs they played at hockey games.

The crowd turned cold. The crowd slouched low in their seats. A hum of boos made their way around the arena.

Dad restarted the engine, then tried a few more laps and a couple more donuts, but nobody cared. He drove a final lap, waving to the crowd, but even I forgot to wave back. Behind me, I heard a man tell his kids to grab their jackets. If they left now, they could still beat the traffic.

*

I hadn’t seen Dad up close since December, but when Mom and I walked back behind the coliseum where the hoses were, I wasn’t surprised that he looked pretty much the same. He wore loose jeans and a faded white t-shirt and the cowboy boots that we’d bought him for a birthday. He was freshly shaven, and if anything, he looked younger, not older, than I remembered. He ran the hose over the axles while Mitch and Kruger held a sheet of paper and tried to figure out what had gone wrong with the stunt.

“Probably just a matter of timing,” Kruger said. Mitch insisted that it had to do with acceleration, and if they worked the pedal some, then maybe they could get the kinks out before Iowa.

“Hope we didn’t interrupt anything,” Mom called. She put her hands on her hips and posed, smiling for them. Kruger and Mitch mumbled an, “Oh, hey, Vanessa. Hey there,” and then shuffled off with their paper.

Dad glanced over and smiled.

“Look what the cat dragged in.”

He walked over to us and dropped the hose on the concrete and let the water pool. He gave Mom a hug and then me. As he hugged me, I watched the layer of dust on the truck’s side disappear into the droplets.

“Sorry I didn’t give you a better show out there,” he said, shoving his hands in his back pockets. “Should’ve been able to clear it. That second trailer…I guess I misjudged it.” It was dark, and the back lot was empty except for the silhouettes of four monster trucks lined up side by side. The teams walked away from their trucks—probably to grab food or return to motels. Far away, we watched a stream of cars filter back to the streets, inching forward as they collected.

“I still thought it was a pretty good show,” I told him.

“Anyway,” he said, licking his lips, “it didn’t go exactly as planned.” He paused. He picked up the hose.

“It had nothing to do with the acceleration or whatever Mitch is saying. It was a pretty big jump for me, that’s all.”

“That’s what happens when you decide to drive monster trucks,” Mom said. “Sometimes you go ‘kaput.’” Dad smiled and nodded. He still had dust on his face.

“You look pretty tonight, Vanessa.”

“Oh, please,” Mom said. “Just dug it up somewhere.”

“Still.”

He eyed her and she must have felt it because she turned away and pretended to admire Behemoth.

“Well, can I take you guys out for some food?” Dad asked, looking at me. “You’ll have to drive, Vanessa, but the kid and I can finish washing her up while you get the car.” She agreed, hesitantly, and then clipped off across the dark lot, heels clicking, and Dad watched her go.

“Good looking woman, your mother.”

“Okay.”

He broke his gaze and began whistling some John Denver song through his teeth. We took turns with the hose and waited for Mom’s car.

“You find any good ugly things lately?” I asked, pressing a finger into the nozzle for water pressure.

“Naw. You always find the best ones anyway. All I ever find are moldy burritos, things like that.” He laughed. “Haven’t seen a shrunken head in months.”

We didn’t say anything else, but occasionally we heard the screech of some faraway car. I picked up a sponge and ran the suds over the bumper. He whistled three entire songs until we saw Mom’s headlights approaching.

“Well, guess that’s as clean as she’s getting tonight,” Dad said. He turned off the hose. He took a step back to admire. “What do you think? Is she the most beautiful thing you’ve ever laid eyes on or what?”

Mom honked twice.

“Hurry up,” she called. “I’m starving.”

*

We ate at a Texas Roadhouse because it stayed open late and Dad was in the mood for a steak.

“We’re celebrating,” he informed the waitress as he slapped his hands on the wood table. “This is our family reunion.” Mom ordered a gigantic margarita and Dad took a beer. I stuck with water and allowed the ice to melt on my tongue.

As we waited for our food, Dad slathered honey butter onto the rolls and asked me all kinds of questions that Mom ended up answering for me.

“How’s school?” he asked, and Mom said I’d passed all my classes, though I could have done a bit better.

“You got yourself a girlfriend?” he asked and Mom said no, but that I’d had a crush on Beth Stevens for most of May.

“Mom!” I cried, then softened. “It wasn’t for that long anyway. Like the last two weeks, maybe.”

She shrugged, took a sip of her drink, then pushed it toward Dad. “Does this taste sweet to you?” He put his lips to the straw and held the drink in his mouth. Eyes closed, he swallowed.

“You know, it does taste a little sweet, yeah.”

When the food came, I was already tired, but I ate most of my club sandwich anyway. I stacked the blue tinseled toothpicks beside my pickle spear and worked away at the chips. Mom picked at her salad but spent most of the time stirring the margarita with her red straw, eyeing it like there might be a prize in the bottom. Dad ran his knife over the steak, cutting tiny bites and savoring each one. He kept his eyes across the table at Mom and me, watching us eat or not eat.

“So where are we going this summer?” I asked between bites.

“Got a two-week stint all worked out for us,” he explained. “After Iowa, we head south to Missouri where there’s a state fair in Sedalia, just west of St. Louis.” I nodded.

“It’s not a big venue or anything, but there’s supposed to be some advertisers and promoters out that way, and it’s good to get your name out. Maybe get Behemoth turned into a Matchbox car. How’d you like that?” He winked and pooled steak sauce beside his fries.

“How much money you boys bringing in these days?” Mom asked, her eyes staring past him at the stirrups on the wall. “You strike it rich?”

“We’re making enough with a little left over,” Dad said. He dipped his knife into the end of the honey butter and then turned to me like he had something to say. Instead, he stared and shook his head and dabbed a bit of steak into the A1, soaking it up in circles.

Mom paid the bill and drove the three of us back to the house.

When we arrived, I watched Dad slide from the front seat of her car. He marched up the sidewalk to the porch, swung the screened door open, then held it as Mom fiddled with her keys.

“You got it?” Dad asked, and Mom said yes, but then she dropped the keys in a bush.

“Shit,” she mumbled. “Shit, shit, shit. Damn it.” They both knelt to search for her dolphin-encrusted key ring in the dark.

“It’s got to be right here,” Mom said, patting the mulch.

“This area, right?” Dad bent down beside her.

I bent down too, and pretty soon we were all searching, our fingers grazing through the grass.

“You got a flashlight?” Dad asked.

“In the house.”

“Well, you got any kind of…”

“Yes, in the house.”

I was the one to find the keys beneath Dad’s boot.

Dad chuckled.

“Teamwork,” he said. “That’s what teamwork’s all about.”

*

That night, I slept well in the silent house. In the morning, I poured myself some cereal. Mom stumbled into the kitchen a few minutes later, tucked into her pink bathrobe, her make-up running black and her fingers rubbing circles on her temples.

“Don’t let me drink margaritas, Frankie,” she groaned, opening the fridge and grabbing a bottle of water. “That’s your job from now on, you got that?”

About fifteen minutes later, as Mom refilled the bottle from the tap, Dad came out threading his leather belt through his jeans.

“Howdy, pardner,” he winked and I glanced up from my cereal bowl and waved. He peered into the bowl and said, “Cheerios, huh?” and I said no, Lucky Charms. He searched closer and saw the marshmallows. He turned to Mom.

“You let him eat junk like that?”

“They’re his teeth,” she shrugged. “And if he wants them to rot from his head, that’s his choice.”

“Well, I’ll be,” he said, smoothing his hair back. “I’ll tell you one thing. No son of mine’s gonna be toothless. They’ll be none of that when we’re on the road. Nothing but bacon, eggs and hash browns every morning. Man’s breakfasts. That’s all the team eats.”

“Sounds like you and the team will be dead by 50,” Mom said.

Dad growled, “Come’ere,” and reached for her. He grabbed her around the waist. She squealed and tried to break away, and I drowned a few horseshoe shapes beneath my spoon to get them nice and soggy.

They laughed then, and Dad sat down beside me at the table and Mom brought him some Lucky Charms too.

“Pretty good, huh?” I asked, and he shoveled a spoonful to his mouth and said yes, and he could probably sell Mitch and Kruger on them in no time.

We kept chewing. I wished someone would turn on a TV or a radio or something. I wished we had a dog I could pet. He looked up at me over his spoon. He raised his head and poured some more into his bowl.

“This stuff will add years to our life, won’t it, hon?” he called to Mom. But she wasn’t there any longer. She was in the bathroom with the door closed.

“Honey, you hear me?” he laughed. “Hellooooo?”

He turned back to me, shrugging. For the first time, he eyed my t-shirt, the old Behemoth one. Maroon, and faded from too many rounds in the wash.

“Were you wearing that last night?” he asked, and I nodded.

“Well, I’ll tell ya one thing,” he grinned, “it’s one good looking shirt.” He returned his attention to the cereal, filling his mouth until he could hardly close it.

“I don’t know, it’s okay,” I shrugged. “It’s not the ugliest thing I could find.”

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