I’ll always remember the way his car smelled, like stale Pall Malls and Vicks VapoRub. It was memories of court-ordered, every-other-weekend visits, chicken fingers and ice cream for dinner from the Dairy Queen, and peanut butter cups baked into the middle of the pancakes Dad’s girlfriend would cook on Sunday mornings.
It was an ’88 Bronco. Two-toned, the color of snow and a too-saturated sky. I would sit in the car’s front seat, much too young to legally be there and play with the small harp-shaped ashtray. Dad would reach over to buckle me in and I’d smell the reminisce of cigarettes on his Carhart jacket and the Vicks’ he smudged just under his nose.
He’d smoke while we drove, whether a five-minute ride down to Jensen’s market for scratch tickets, or the four hour trip to his parents’, my grandparents’, house in Northern Maine. His cigarette hand would hang out the window, wind pulling the ash into winter’s crisp air, and he’d push an old Cat Stevens cassette in the tape-player.
He’d sing to each scratchy song, stretching out each word, and every so often look towards my seat and smile.
“Sing it again, Daddy!” I’d squeal, almost on command. And he’d press rewind and skip back to the beginning again.
I’d draw in the fog on the window, press each finger against it and see how long I could keep it still before it got too cold or I got too bored. I’d trace the outline of the center console. The leather was worn; cracked and peeling. I’d pull small slivers of it off when he wasn’t paying attention and then tuck them into the lonely space between the seat and the center console. I’d hide all kinds of things down there: the stems of lollipops he’d get from the bank teller, the cellophane that he’d rip from a fresh pack of cigarettes, candy wrappers, anything I didn’t want to hold onto anymore.
Back then, when I sat next to him during those mandated visits as a child I could only see the best in him.
After that winter he stopped showing up for his weekends with me. Mom said he’d started trucking again, and his route was east to west rather than north to south, meaning I was out of the way. I forgave him and held out hope that he’d show up again, unannounced and driving the Bronco too fast down the dirt road that led to our unit in the trailer park.
But after a few more winters came and went my hopes dissipated and I stopped expecting anything from him. All I knew of him were the rumors that passed between the lips of neighbors, the insults my mom would spew when she drank too much, and the fading memories of our car rides.
Twenty years later, when his lifestyle had finally caught up with him, a tattered will was pulled from between the pages of a phone book in his apartment. I got a phone call from a lawyer in a town I’d never heard of.
A few days later I found myself standing in a parking lot being handed the keys to the car I’d figured he’d gotten rid of decades ago.
I realized how the scent remained unchanged after so long, and in that moment I felt my mind drift back to those days with him. Weekend road trips. A cassette in the player. My fingers peeling back the leather. Dad by my side. Those memories were the ones I held close and left unspoken, hidden in a place no one could get to. A lonely space only I could access.
The upholstery was unkept, an assortment of tickets laid on the dash frozen in time. The odometer was stuck at a number I don’t remember anymore.
The woman at the bed and breakfast I stayed at said it was fine to sell the car from her home — she’d known my Dad, though I never asked how. I put a sign on the windshield, For Sale. $2200. When I place the sign between the window and the windshield the familiar scent snaps back at me. I barely make my way back to my front door when I hear a voice.
“Will you take two grand?” a man asks. He’d walked from somewhere — it was a busy road, but I didn’t think to question it. He smokes Marlborough Menthols; I see them hanging from his shirt pocket. They’re unfamiliar yet comforting.
“I will,” I tell him.
He counts twenty hundred-dollar bills and hands them to me with shaky hands, worn with age. They’re what I’d assume my dad’s hands would look like had he still been here.
I hand him the keys and I watch him leave just as quietly and quickly as he arrived. He gives a proper wave, and I wave in return. I watch him drive down the busy road, much like the ones from my childhood, in a car that held so many of my memories still tucked between the seat cushions.
Heather Rose is a writer from New Hampshire. She completed her MFA in Fiction Prose in 2015 and works as a communications consultant and creative writing professor.