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Something Taken

Willy’s mother Loretta was from back when reputation still mattered. That went double if you were only first-generation American; her clan, like most, wanted it known that even if they had left the old, worn-out country behind, it wasn’t a nation of barbarians. And so, things weren’t called by their real names. Her husband Walter, for instance, “liked a drink.” He was just “nervous from the service.”

The police were called on a regular basis, the red spaceship rays that shot out from the cherry-topped roofs of their squad cars skimming across the grass and piercing through every picture window on the block. Still, Walter’s family clung to their reputation even as he was being lectured in the back of a police cruiser.

Reputation was one reason Loretta stayed with him longer than she should have. Another was how she would get along, much less get her three kids, including the girl, through college (college meant everything to a grocer’s daughter), when she’d never so much as signed her name to a check.

Most times Walter just exploded. Other times he methodically channeled whatever it was churning inside him into some lengthy undertaking requiring a great deal of thought, like the night he spent a couple of hours in his basement shop constructing a cat-o’-nine-tails out of plastic tubing for when the kids got out of line.

The handle, of heavier-gauge tubing, formed a perfect hangman’s knot (thirteen coils, just like it was supposed to be). The cords were each fourteen inches long, with three knots each at three-inch intervals, starting a half-inch from the end. A real welt-raiser, that’s for sure. Loretta’s own father would have just grabbed his belt.

Walter had a saying—“Do a thing, big or small—do it right or don’t do it at all.” This strict standard applied to everything he made from the exquisite, exact machine parts he fabricated as a tool and die maker (long before computers were part of the process) to the instrument of torture he designed on a whim and a few shots.

It was from Walter that Willy had inherited his talent for art, no doubt. Although Willy also remembered his mother’s lovely singing voice. When he was little it would rise up out of the kitchen while she was ironing or preparing dinner and flow in warm golden waves throughout the house, until it became less frequent and was finally lost. Now that she was almost ninety, she never mentioned it.

Willy came to understand Walter’s violent outbursts, given time. One of those ancient uncle’s cousins always said that the war had changed him. Loretta made no bones about the fact that her mother-in-law was a horror. There was one incident, though, that always stayed with Willy, that he spent endless hours thinking about—the time they built that car for the Pinewood Derby, not long before his tenth birthday. Maybe because it was so determined, such a bizarre twist on his father’s perfectionism. Or maybe because it seemed so willfully and obviously perverse, and yet so full of hope for a happiness that never would or could be…

The Pinewood Derby. That ancient Cub Scout ritual for little boys designed to give you lessons in the true spirit of competition, winning and losing graciously, and whittling. The idea was to fashion a racecar from a regulation hunk of pine around 2/3 again as big as a stick of butter, two regulation oblong pieces that were supposed to serve as axles, and four regulation plastic wheels. Pretty basic—due to the proportions of the pinewood block, anything you did came out looking like one of those tube-shaped 1940’s sprint cars. Your paint job was about the only means of making it stand out any way. Winning the actual race was most likely more a matter of chance than anything else. Oh sure, you could attempt to cut down on the drag by sanding the chassis till it was as smooth as a blackboard; you could lubricate the wheels really well—but when all was said and done, a five-ounce (maximum) carved wooden racecar was a five-ounce (maximum) carved wooden racecar.

The newsletter described it as a shared father-son activity. Which of course it had to be. Willy put off asking for as long as possible, not knowing what Walter’s reaction would be, and not wanting to be alone with his father anyway. But he knew it wasn’t something he could accomplish on his own, and at last approached his mother to act as intermediary. If she could catch her husband at a good time, between moods, maybe, just maybe…

Fortunately, a couple of nights before the race, the stars aligned, and Willy found himself in his father’s basement workshop.

“All right, if we’re gonna do it, we’re not gonna do it half-assed. What do I say? ‘Do a thing, big or small’…now pay attention,” Walter barked, sounding like a drill instructor.

Willy knew that tone. It meant he was going to be a passive bystander, just like how he “learned” carpentry when Walter built those shelves for the garage—his job would be to stand holding a flashlight or a hammer, while barely a word passed between them.

The project got off on a bad foot.

“They expect me to use this crappy wood? How the hell am I supposed to make anything decent out of this?”

Willy mumbled something about how they had to use the official kit that was given them.

Walter started up the circular saw, cut the block of wood in half, and threw it in the garbage.

“My kid’s not gonna show up with some chunk of balsa. I need quality materials. Just like your uncle—expects me to work with that cheap steel they make in Japan. You can’t give that to a client—it’s lousy.”

Willy wanted to say something, but thought twice.

His father rummaged through a pile of scrap, and found a nice piece of maple.

“That other shit, you can put a dent in it with your fingernail. This you’ll have for years.”

Once things got underway, all the cutting, filing, sanding, nailing, and painting, the rest of the night, which lasted till 1:00 AM, passed without a hitch. Willy’s father smiled now and then as he turned to him and said, “Now this is something you can be proud of.” His mood improved exponentially as the car came closer to being finished. By now, he normally would have put away a whole six-pack and a few shots of Seagram’s Seven Crown or blackberry brandy. No matter that Willy was still expected to stand mute—inside he was overjoyed to see his father in such a good frame of mind. It was just like it as supposed to be, almost.

Finally, it was done. And it was so beautiful—a near-replica of a Lamborghini Espada, low, sleek, and silver, with a rear spoiler of such correct proportion, with such a graceful curve, that Willy couldn’t help but slowly ski the length of his finger down its slope, following its soaring trajectory into the air when he reached the end. And so many hand-painted details nobody else’s would have, at least, nowhere near as skillfully done—the perfect phosphorescent ovals of the headlights, the windows, with their edges straight as a razor blade, the elegant number 7 surrounded by a finely drawn circle on the hood…something that wouldn’t look out of place at the Indy 500, much less the Pinewood Derby.

The last step was to add a little “ballast”, the miniature vehicle’s only fuel being gravity. Most kids glued a couple of pennies to the bottom, which was fine as long as it didn’t go over the specified weight. Willy’s father bored a one-inch diameter hole in the bottom, and bolted in a stack of six or seven washers. Willy worked up the courage to ask if that was okay, and his father snapped that it would be fine. “You wanna win, doncha? Listen—your car”, he said in what amounted to a decree, “is takin’ first place.”

The night of the race, Walter again drank less than usual. Just a couple of beers, no shots.

Unbelievably, he even offered to drive three other scouts there when the scoutmaster called and said one of the other dads had gotten sick. Only once before had he agreed to do that, and then only because the scoutmaster told him he was their last resort and Loretta had begged on Willy’s behalf. He spent the next week grumbling how he’d had to cart a bunch of brats all the way to the Elk’s Lodge and back. This time, he seemed delighted to do it. Willy wondered if he was the last resort this time too.

The ride turned out to be more fun than it would have been if Mr. Miller had taken them. Walter was in a mood to tell jokes—the dirty ones that ten-year-olds love to hear. And he fed Willy the opportunity to rattle off a few too—although his were more of the Reader’s Digest variety Mr. Miller would have told. It didn’t matter; the other kids laughed at them too. Or were they laughing at him? Whichever—Willy, shy by nature, was never the center of attention, and he liked for once not being on the sidelines. When one of the kids told Walter he was the “funnest dad he ever met”, Walter replied, giving the enraptured Willy a side wink, “That’s because we’re gonna take home a trophy tonight.”

The black-with-red-interior ’63 Chevy Bel Air made a sharp Batmobile turn into the lodge parking lot, and everyone tumbled out onto the gravel laughing like circus clowns. They immediately sobered up, though, once they entered the large pillared front hall of the Elk’s.

The first order of business was to get signed in and have your car undergo inspection. Since it would be the first time they’d be taking the results of their and their father’s labors out from under wraps, their finished products were subject to the scrutiny of everyone attending.

There was already a crowd ahead of them, and Willy watched as one near-identical racer after another was unveiled. He couldn’t wait for his father to lift his shining silver beauty from the modified shoebox it was waiting in. Everybody else’s would look like a toy in comparison. Willy imagined that the whole inside of the box was illuminated from the supernatural light it radiated.

Then, a kid named Roger was disqualified, because his car was too heavy.

Suddenly, Willy panicked. He all at once realized that his car was wrong in every way. Even without the bolt and washers, it was far over the weight limit, and probably too wide to fit the track. It wasn’t even made from the right type of wood.

Roger popped a couple of pennies off the underside with his scout knife, and passed through.

“We can’t show them mine,” Willy stammered.

“Whaddya mean? I spent all night on that damn thing.”

From experience, Willy had learned how to spot the signals that indicated one of his father’s mood changes, just like he’d learn to recognize which plants to steer clear from in the woods from his scout handbook. He felt sick, and just wanted to turn and run, all the way home if he had to.

Naturally, a full range of reactions greeted Willy’s car—resentment, admiration, and complete puzzlement. None of that mattered. There was no question that they wouldn’t be able to participate.

“It’s very nice, but I’m afraid…”

Walter started yelling, and got them removed from the hall.

As they drove home, he fumed at Willy, who sat silent in the passenger seat. “Stupid sons of bitches, don’t know anything about what’s good, don’t know anything about quality—all they know is that cheap shit they get from Japan…”

Walter would only live another seven years. Years later, Willy still had the car, displayed on a shelf in his living room.


Gene Wisniewski is an artist and writer.


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