March 21, 2021 by The Citron Review
by Gabriela Denise Frank
My father’s eyes were shit brown. His words.
For most of his life, he worked as a mechanic. First, in bleak Detroit winters, the skies as dismal as the snow-cracked asphalt beneath his crimson Firebird TransAm, then in the scorching summers of Phoenix where we moved in 1980, the seething pavement hot enough to melt rubber.
Bent over Toyotas and Mitsubishis, Nissans and Fords, their clamshell hoods propped open with flimsy metal rods, my father leaned his body into the hot, dusty engines of strangers’ cars. In between each service, he’d sip from sweaty cans of Coca-Cola and suck down unfiltered Camels, scoring a divot into the tip of his calloused thumb with the Bic wheel. Each night, he’d come home smelling of cigarettes, roach-coach lunchmeat, and flat sugar syrup mixed with engine exhaust. Bits of grit in his thinning salt-and-pepper hair.
One day, a pick-up truck rolled forward on the rack and pinned him against his red Snap-On tool chest—metal on metal, my father’s spine squeezed between. The force wrenched off two spurs of lower vertebrae, his back already achy from two decades of twisting and torquing through car chassis. The fix was twofold: surgery to fuse together L1 and L2 and a prescription for Vicodin. Neither fully worked. Or made him more pleasant. My daily dread gathered steam around six, the time he phoned to say he was leaving work, a signal that dinner should be on the table, steaming, when he arrived. The house tensed in expectation, creaking as the day’s heat eased. I never knew until he slammed the front door what kind of night we were in for: exhausted or angry.
In spite of the pain, it was still possible to catch him chuckle. Out of nowhere, his goofy guffaw might punctuate a sweltering Sunday afternoon. He might snap his fingers to Little Richard while he futzed around in the garage. On his one day off, he’d swing open the metal door, click on the radio, and spend the day at his workbench, making furniture or small repairs, like rewiring a lamp, depending upon what broke that week. You would think he’d be tired of the heat or working with his hands, since he fixed things for a living, but it seemed to satisfy him, improving the house he spent so little time in.
I could never predict what would tickle him—a deejay’s joke or an old Motown lyric that reminded him of street racing when he was young in Detroit—when it did, my father beamed with his whole body, his face ruddy, mouth open, revealing his crooked front tooth, a light pearlescent gray. Most of the time, he hid that tooth. It embarrassed him, I think. That tooth might be why he didn’t laugh very often, not more than a chortle. In photographs, he smiled with his lips closed, his grins akin to grimaces.
I suppose there wasn’t much for him to laugh at in the Phoenix years, pinned between an endless line of broken cars and chalky pills, a few months after my mother died, a year before I’d leave him, too.
Gabriela Denise Frank is an Italian American literary artist whose formative years were spent in the Southwestern desert. Her essays and short fiction have appeared in True Story, Hunger Mountain, Baltimore Review, Crab Creek Review, The Rumpus, and elsewhere. She is working on her first novel, which spans from her ancestral homeland of Italy to her adopted home of the Pacific Northwest. www.gabrieladenisefrank.com