de(tales): orange keychain
Laura Lynn Brown was introduced to me through a lovely essay she wrote about her mother, which still haunts me. Since then, we have connected through the internet, and I'm so looking forward to meeting her in person in the future. Her writing is always luminous, and stays with me long after I've finished reading the last line. This piece is no exception. Enjoy, friends.
I didn’t have a car. I didn’t even have keys. I drove a gold single-speed Schwinn with coaster brakes and sparkly handlebar tassels. But I coveted a keychain at the local department store for two reasons: It was orange, and it had my name on it.
I can still see where it was in Harts Family Center, on a carousel atop a small square display island next to the glass bunker where they sold watches and jewelry. I never looked at the jewelry, but I passed it on my way to my second favorite department, sporting goods. (School supplies was first.)
I was probably nine when I led Dad to the keychains and showed it to him. He asked why I needed a keychain. I would have taken that as an invitation to persuade. Start with the obvious: I would need keys someday, and this one was perfect because it was my favorite color and said “Laura.” And if we waited, it might be gone. And it was only $1.29, or whatever the price was. Then I looked him in the eye and grinned a little.
He smiled the weakened smile of dads everywhere, sapped by the kryptonite of a daughter’s petition.
For my sixteenth birthday, Dad’s gift to me was in a small white cardboard box, the right size for a bracelet. Inside was a key fob, a heavy black disk with the Buick logo atop a larger, teardrop-shaped piece of thick red suede. Its ring held a key to the family Skylark.
We went to the Hartz parking lot for my first drive, early on a Saturday morning before the store opened. I was surprised at how easily the car rolled when I took my foot off the brake, how far it could go and how fast on flat ground without any gas at all. Dad was calm and anticipated my surprise.
Not long after I was driving on the streets, Dad had me drive up the alley behind our house and turn right on the road we simply called County Road. There was a blind curve, and a huge white pickup came around the corner at us. I over-corrected toward someone’s hedges; Dad grabbed the steering wheel and kept us on the road. He yelled at me, called me stupid.
We took that road all the way out to St. Clairsville, a country drive I normally enjoyed, but I was smarting from his anger, and repaying it with silence, looking straight ahead. We returned home on the highway. I slammed the screen door and stomped through the kitchen toward my room, muttering about Dad in answer to Mom’s “How was it?” moments before he came in muttering to her about me.
I passed the road portion of my first driving test, but flunked the maneuverability portion. It tested, in essence, the ability to parallel park, but in a strange way. I had to approach five traffic cones set up in the shape of an inverted house, drive around the first cone into the corridor, back through the cones in whichever direction the instructor told me, then drive forward again. During the backing part, I ran over a cone.
Dad grinned, the kind where the mouth says “That’s funny” but the eyes say, “Oh, honey.” Poor flat cone. Poor deflated daughter.
He built five stakes on wooden bases, each about four feet tall, with orange paper napkins staple-gunned to the top. These were our practice traffic cones. Evening after evening that summer, after supper I’d drive us the four miles to the empty parking lot of Scott Lumber and park. He would set the stakes out at the same distance apart as the traffic cones. I’d practice the maneuver, over and over again, sometimes backing left, sometimes backing right.
One night he said something that frustrated me. I think he was telling me something I knew, therefore from my teenage point of view, unnecessary to speak. It was distracting. I looked him in the eye, told him to get out and I’d do it myself.
Ten times each way with perfection. That was my goal. He stood to the side with his hands in his pockets, grinning as I backed my way out around that last stake and drove through the gauntlet again. One. Two. Four. Five. Ten. Twelve. Twenty.
Later Mom told me that Dad felt like he got to know me in those evening drives. What did we talk about? I don’t know. I’m sure I did most of the talking and he mostly listened. I guess I felt comfortable enough with him to be myself.
A few days before he died of lung cancer, Dad was having mild hallucinations in the hospital. He kept asking where everyone’s car was and when it would be time to go. One morning he gestured toward a closet I hadn’t even noticed and asked me to get his pants and shoes. Not time yet, Dad, I said. Not time yet.
He seemed almost satisfied just to know where all our cars were.
I have no idea what happened to the Buick key ring. The Skylark key eventually got transferred to the Laura ring. It carried the keys to my first car, the brown Chevette I inherited when his father died. It dangled from the ignition in my gray Dodge Omni, and then my white Toyota Corolla, and now my blue Toyota Matrix.
A few years before he died, we started having a weekly phone date. Sometimes his call came while I was driving. He would rather I didn’t, but he stopped chiding me about it. Eventually he traded in “Are you driving?” for “Where are you headed?” I’d steer one-handed, the orange tab swinging with the rhythms of the road, his words and his attentive silence coming to me from the direction of the passenger seat.
Laura Lynn Brown's writing has appeared in Slate, the Iowa Review, Cimarron Review, Every Day Poems, Art House America, The Curator, and elsewhere. She is the author of Everything That Makes You Mom: A Bouquet of Memories and the publisher of MakesYouMom.com, a new multi-author website. She works for a daily newspaper. More of her writing can be found at lauralynnbrown.com.