Whenever I drove home, I remembered to have my car spotless. This was hard for me because I lived out of my car — and it was the one place I allowed myself to be messy. But my dad. My dad worried that something deeper was wrong if my car wasn’t in order. To him, a messy car was not a sign of busy-ness or the calling card of someone on the move. To him, a messy car meant a messy mind and a messy mind meant that I was most likely depressed, or anxious, or in over my head. So I always cleaned it up before I went home.
Except one time I forgot. It was my first time home since we found out about the Lyme disease and it was the beginning of the semester and my car was littered with stacks of papers and syllabi and books…and makeup and workout clothes and maybe even the odd pair of shoes.
I drove home and I got in late and I forgot about my messy car. I forgot until I woke up early the next morning and saw the familiar bins and Ziploc containers spread out all over the kitchen table and the countertops. And my things. I saw the zip ties and the color-coded folders and the alcohol wipes and the binder clips and all of my things in the middle of it all in various stages of being cleaned and categorized. It was a gorgeous, clear fall day and the back door was propped open and I could see my car in the driveway, with the hood popped up and all four doors and the trunk open and rags and buckets and extension cords and a canister vacuum scattered around.
My whole center fell. All of my insides. And then my dad walked in humming to himself with a can of WD-40 in his hand and stopped dead in his tracks when he saw me. He smiled sheepishly and his eyes held secrets. He was pleased with himself.
“You’re up too early!” he protested. “You’re not supposed to be up yet. I wanted it to be a surprise.”
I swallowed hard and I clenched my jaw.
“What are you doing?” I asked.
“I wanted to surprise you,” he said. He must have noticed how my jaw clenched tighter and how narrow and cold my eyes got, because he started to stammer. “I…I…just wanted to surprise you with a clean car.” He started to fumble with a few things on the countertop. “I’m organizing your things here…”
“I don’t like you touching my things…I don’t want you to,” I said. “They are my things and I know where they are and I like it like that.”
The truth was, I cared about my things a little. But I saw a whole day of nothing but my dad’s putzing stretching in front of me and I couldn’t take it.
He shook his head.
“You can’t like your car like this.” He gestured at all the junk on the table and the countertops in disbelief. “You’re just busy and I’m helping. I thought I’d surprise you.”
“I don’t want your help.” I didn’t yell it but I spat and choked it out. “I don’t need your help. I don’t need it and I haven’t needed it for a long, long time.”
I was close to tears.
“I’d be in trouble if I did,” I said…almost as an afterthought and half under my breath.
And then something happened that I hardly have words for. Something terrible and brilliant and heartbreaking and powerful and pathetic all at once. My dad, who I came to Greenville with under an ominous sky and my dad who taught me about building and cars and my dad who told me he was glad I wasn’t a yes-man or a people-pleaser and my dad who shared his city with me and his nostalgia and his optimism.
That dad disappeared right before my eyes and in his place came this otherworldly being with clouded eyes and a twisted face that started howling as if in pain and ranting and raging.
Everyone is soooo sure of everything. They think they know everything he said. But they don’t. They know NOTHING. They don’t know anything about anything. They think they don’t need anything and they don’t need anyone and they don’t need me, but they do he said.
His face was contorted and his hair stuck up sweaty in the front and his head was cocked to one side and I didn’t recognize him. I wasn’t afraid. I was simply in awe. Dumbstruck by the instant transformation. I wasn’t afraid because he wasn’t raging at me. He was raging at the sky and at the world and at everyone who didn’t believe him and at everyone who didn’t believe in him. And that was a lot of people.
You like messes? You like them? Messes?! Fine. Fine, fine, fine, fine, fine. OK. Have it your way he said. Don’t take any help from anyone and don’t give any help. But you’re just another one of them and I never knew it. I never knew it?!
He raged this way for a few more minutes and then he gathered my things in both of his arms. He walked out to my car in strange, jerky movements, his head still cocked to one side and his hair still sticking up. Like a nightmare zombie cockatiel, an alien in his own body, and still raging all the way.
He threw this first armful in the back seat, still raging, and came back in for a second load, then a third, then a fourth. He was somewhere else and he didn’t see me anymore.
I did the only thing I knew to do. I grabbed a book and sat down on the couch to wait.
After my dad had returned my things, I watched him jerk his way to the shed and grab a shovel. He took it back to my car and began to shovel gravel and dirt into my back seat. Right on top of my things. The tirade unceasing, though broken up by the chink and slice of shovel through dirt and the spatterfall of dirt into car.
You like messes?! Fine. You really do like messes? The whole world likes messes but not when the mess is real and that’s the truth he said. That’s the God’s honest truth and only I know it. Have it your way. You’ll really like this he said. I am not useless. I am helping get your car just how you like it he said.
I’d say, all-in-all, this went on for half-an-hour. Until my car was about as full of things and rocks and grass and dirt as you can imagine. And then my dad slammed the trunk closed and all four doors and dropped the shovel and collapsed in the driveway weeping. Oh how he wept.
I sat on the couch, reading and waiting.
And then he came inside and slept most of the day and woke up around four in the afternoon and the atonement began. He went back out to the car and started unloading things and bringing them back into the kitchen — crumpled papers and sad-looking books and dirty clothes. The bins and wipes and clips reappeared. He made several trips to the store for who-knows-what. He scrubbed and vacuumed and cleaned and hummed.
He did exactly the thing that I had never wanted him to do in the first place — and he stayed up all night.
The next morning when I woke up, my dad met me with coffee. I took it and sat down on the couch. I looked at him and waited. He sat down next to me and cleared his throat.