Sunday Driver, 2021 First Place and Publisher’s Choice

By Amy McClellan

The sun over the Taylor mountains seemed particularly beckoning as Mike Scott grabbed his supersized Ford logo coffee mug and headed to the shop. He was still adjusting to working without the help of his dad, even if help was often critical harassment of the way he did things. The tall forty-year-old rubbed what was left of his blonde hair thinking it was odd how what used to irk him was missed so greatly since his dad was put in the nursing home. The resurrection of the old Ford was his first solo project and he was determined to get it finished to show his dad for a birthday gift. Of course, he knew that there was no guarantee his dad would recognize the truck or even his son.

Mike’s father had not gone into the nursing home on his own accord and remained bitter. The two had not talked for several years after Mike had been tasked with the duty of taking the keys away from the older mechanic and car enthusiast. It was a difficult decision to accept the duty but after two accidents with minor injuries, it was determined necessary before something more serious occurred.  The difficulty was magnified by the fact that the early onset Alzheimer’s was intermittent and most times he was still in control of his faculties.  However, when he had an episode, his anger became a threat to the rest of his family. In the two years of close supervision, more and more things had been taken away including guns he had inherited from his father and grandfather.  That was the final explosive moment. He was no longer willing to have a wife or son as warden. When the police finally took him into custody, he did not recognize his lifelong friend as the officer who was trying to help him.  He was placed in a secure care facility. In time through the moments of lucidity and medication management he became calmer and realized he was lucky to not be in prison. On good days he also accepted that his family did what was necessary.  Mike had become very optimistic during a routine health checkup for his dad and suggestion of some new testing to determine if the dementia symptoms could be related to diabetes. The doctor felt that if this was the case, his father could regain a somewhat normal life.

With the hope that his father could come home someday, Mike hooked up the old Ford that he had driven in high school and towed it up from the back pasture to the shop with a plan to get it running. It had rested undisturbed with the exception of the goat herd that had used it as a shade and back scratcher for almost twenty years. His dad always planned to fully refurbish the truck and Mike was sad when he feared that dream would never come true. His dad had bought it from an outfitter in Salmon to use as a hunting vehicle. The rusty ’61 step side pickup was one of Ford’s first 4WD vehicles. It was a well-built, no frills vehicle with a massive winch attached to the front bumper. Mike remembered the pride that glowed from his dad each time a stranded Idaho driver who had forgotten how to drive on icy winter roads was hoisted from a road side snow bank.  In high school, Mike felt the same exhilaration from similar rescues.

Within weeks, Mike had pulled out the motor, rebuilt it and replaced all the rusted and worn parts. The body damage which was evidence of a hardworking lifetime would have to wait, he hoped, until his dad was back in the shop. Mike worked in an almost manic state to get the truck running before his dad’s birthday. He was pleased that his boss understood what the obsession was about and cut down his at work shop hours and even helped find some of the obsolete parts needed.

Mike’s mom joined him in the garage for the crowning moment and turn of the key. Mike was pleased with her interest and enjoyed the hope that had returned to her prematurely wrinkled face. Mike had seen her age rapidly in the past years and knew she bore both physical and emotional scars from his father’s illness. She brought three champagne glasses in her hands and a bottle of sparkling cider and placed them on the work bench. She rested her chin on the side of the truck under the popped hood and Mike guessed she’d said a brief prayer.

Mike’s mother made the standard comment for all rebuilds: “Did you put the oil pan plug in?” The comment was her reminder of the time the plug had been forgotten and she’d happened to notice a rather large puddle of oil under the newborn engine making its first cries of rebirth.

Mike gave the thumb’s up sign and turned the ignition on the old Ford. It sputtered but did not start. He tweaked a setting on the carburetor and noticed his mom had slipped into the driver seat. He signaled her to try again and the beast sputtered a little more with a hint of starting. He fiddled a bit more and signaled again. This time the sputtering was followed by some chugs and finally a loud cry of a newborn engine taking its first breath.  Neither mother or son were successful at holding back the flood of tears.

After a toast of simulated champagne with a third glass for their third and missing wheel, Mike began attaching all the remaining parts knowing that a new engine needed time to adjust to its new beginnings. He felt the signs were favorable for a promising resurrection and he hoped the prayers for his dad would also be favorably answered.

Mike took several short trips around the block each time stopping to check vital gauges and functions. Once satisfied he could take the truck for a little longer trip, he rushed in the house for a quick shower and dressed up for a Sunday drive to show his dad the truck. He thought about asking his mother to go along but sensed she knew this could go well or could also go very badly.

The care center always made Mike feel awkward, even guilty. His dad had refused to see him in the beginning of his stay and his reception had improved with time but remained random. Mike had been so excited about the doctor’s new treatment plan that he worked so hard on the truck just in case. He had not seen his dad in the two-week period since the new testing and treatment and his mother had not sensed but maybe an ever-so-small bit of improvement.

The residents were in the cafeteria when he got there which made him even more apprehensive. He had seen many of the other residents show the same bitterness to family and some serious outbursts. He saw his father looking solemn and a small cupcake with a single candle on his cafeteria tray.  One of the care takers noticed Mike and smiled making her way over to him. She pulled Mike over to his dad saying he was just in time. She tried to put a birthday hat on Mike’s dad but he pushed it away. She picked up the hat and put it on Mike who seemed oblivious but caused just the glimmer of a smile on his dad’s face. Mike smiled and joined in on the traditional birthday song in a not so unison version from the caretakers and other residents.

Mike was not sure his dad recognized him but fumbled with his pocket for a bit and pulled out a leather tooled “Scott” keychain that he had made in high school and a well-worn narrow key hung from it. His father looked at it as if he were being hypnotized following the swinging key as it searched for long hidden files in his mind.

“Mikey?” His dad looked shyly at first and then grinned from ear to ear. “Did you know it’s my birthday?”

“I know dad. I brought a surprise for you.”

“A file in the cake?” The older Scott laughed.

Mike had not seen a hint of his dad’s sense of humor in years and tried to keep his optimism hidden but explained to his dad it was sort of like that. He had told him how he had arranged for them to spend the afternoon together.

“Doctor appointment?”

Mike took his dad’s hand and spoke quietly into his ear. “Breakin’ you outta this joint.”

Mike laughed as his dad dashed out of his chair as quick as a Porsche.

The caretaker gave Mike the all clear to go and he caught up with his father who did not actually seem to know where the exit was.

Mike eagerly anticipated his dad’s reaction when he saw the truck but his dad seemed confused when he saw it.

“What year is this?” Mike’s dad asked and covered his eyes and started shaking. “I better go back, it’s best, its not real.”

“Dad it is real! I got her running again with a little help from mom.” Mike said as he pulled the hands gently away from his father’s eyes and hugged him tightly. “Jump in and let’s see what she can do.”

Mike opened the creaky door for his dad to hop in. He was not the well fit dad of his youth and had to be boosted in and seatbelt fastened for him but he was smiling and that was a step in a good direction.

Father and son sat in silence each shaking somewhat nervously but relaxing at a similar rate as the engine soothed all fears. In minutes, the silence remained but nervousness had faded.  Mike knew exactly where the truck needed to go and headed down 17th street to Holmes on out to the Taylor mountain foothills. He could see his dad becoming less aloof.

“Hey dad, do you remember the first time you let me drive the truck?” Mike asked in an attempt to break the silence.

“Can’t tell mom,” he said, and Mike knew he remembered.

“Yep. I was twelve and you took me to Harper’s summer grazing pastures and let me drive.”

“It was your birthday.”

“Yep. It was my best birthday ever dad.”

The old man was still quiet but Mike noticed he was savoring every little bit of nature and all that had changed and all that had remained the same.  From time to time he would softly comment to himself as if he were still not convinced it were real or maybe because he thought he’d reached heaven.  When the duo reached a gully that resembled a small river in the spring thaw, he pulled the truck over.

The two sat side by side and looked across the foothills at the exponential growth of Idaho Falls, Shelley, and surrounding areas. His dad had only been ill for a few years but it had been two decades since they had surveyed the area like this and both commented at how much of the farmland had been overrun by housing. His father began recalling more and more and Mike felt the power of what he had done. They began to talk about the rebuild and the past but neither party wished discuss those bad years.

Mike wanted to savor the day and not let it end but decided maybe they could stop by and visit mom before returning to the Care Center. Mike also feared the return may not go well. He was about to boost his dad back into the truck when he decided to make a change of plans.

He handed his dad the keys. “Take her for a spin before we go back.”

“Are you sure?” Mike’s dad asked like a mischievous teen about to skirt the line of the law. “You know I am not supposed to drive.”

“This is private land and we have permission to do some off-road driving.” Mike replied mimicking his dad’s response from decades ago.

“What if I don’t remember how?”

“Driving is not a thinkin’ thing when you have driven as long as you have. “

Mike felt confident he was in good hands when his dad found the drive gear despite the fact the letters had worn off the dash at some point during the 70’s about the time the speedometer started doing a jittery twenty-five mph range making it impossible to tell how fast the truck was really going. Nothing else really mattered today. Without digging up the trauma of the past few years, whatever rift may have grown between father and son had been closed.