Darnell had two cars: the one in the garage
and the one on the driveway.
The work car and the reward car;
the wheels of the adjunct faculty member
and the gift he’d given himself
when he became part of
the tenured elite.
Work car was his dowdy 1960 Chevy Impala
which he bought used fresh
out of grad school: the rattling mud spattered white frame,
2-speed Powerglide transmission and flighty breaks.
But there were consolations.
It was a V8 coupe with dual exhaust
and 235 horsepower (in the beginning, anyway).
Marcus called it the “Great White Hunter”
because it couldn’t keep clean
and joked that when his father drove it down South Side streets
little kids ran into their bungalows thinking the car
was some kind of terrestrial slave ship.
Reward car, on the other hand, was what Marcus had been eyeing
and which Darnell seldom drove:
a 1970 Dodge Charger, second generation painted black
with a 440 cubic inch 7.2 liter engine and four speed manual transmission
that roared like a troop transport aircraft. Marcus wondered
what it would sound like if backfired
and joked that when it did people would look
for the grassy knoll. But Darnell wouldn’t play games with the machinery
and no matter how much his son
cajoled him he treated the car in velvet gloves.
Marcus had been pleading with his dad
to let him drive the car to Laura’s. I’ll polish the chrome bumper
for you. I’ll wipe down the dash and vacuum the seats
and hand wash the floor mats!
but Darnell said no and then Clarisse stepped in
and said You’ve got to be thinking about appearances, Marcus.
Have you even seen a car like that-
What, you mean in this town? And she nodded
and Marcus said, Ma, that’s the point.
Child, your father told you no
so be glad you’ve got a car at all since you weren’t the one
who did the buying or the paying.
Marcus shook his head and then with a wide grin
said You can’t even drive so why am I arguing
She flicked the dish towel at him
Get of this kitchen. I’m not feeding you a thing.
You can eat at the party.
Lou came downstairs and caught Marcus in the hall.
No dice, bro. Dad ain’t letting us take
the good car.
Lou shook his head slightly but wondered aloud
why his brother even bothered asking.
Man, you’ve got to push back a little, bro.
You the one acting like the oldest child, Louis.
You think dad is made of stone?
You’ve got to play up the fact that every time he looks at us
his big old heart keeps getting bigger and bigger.
Marcus held out his hand palm up: I’ve got them eating out of this.
Eating. While you’re the one acting good and clean.
Who’s supposed to be the smart one
in this family-
Darnell went out to start the Impala
letting the engine warm for a few minutes.
The snow was starting and every flake stuck to the solid brown
of the yard.
He turned on the radio trying to catch the forecast
but when a news report about Vietnam came on he quickly
shut it off.
So it’s snowing. It’s December. It’s cold.
If it gets to be too much they can just wait it out over there.
Darnell knew Claudette just well enough
from work. That French Canadian hospitality,
he thought. She’d keep everyone
warm and safe if it got to be too much outside.
As Marcus and Lou walked out the front door
Darnell opened the driver’s door
for his son who said I don’t have any cash
on me if you’re looking for a tip.
Darnell went to put his hand on top of Marcus’s head
to steal his tuque but his son was too quick.
Float like a butterfly, baby
Lou watched it all closely.
He would have liked to show up in the Charger
but it was no big deal either way.
The night was dark, that car was black
and no one at the house would even notice what vehicle
they arrived in. Marcus knew that too
but it didn’t matter. It was a matter of principle to match his black
turtle neck, leather jacket and khakis
to his ride.
In the car he lit a flavored Beedi
and said Smoke this. It’ll set your mind right first.
Lou glanced at the soiled looking red stick
and said This didn’t come from Harlem, did it?
No, sir. Well, yeah maybe. But-
Marcus patted the breast of his coat.
I’ve got some Harlem tricks in my pocket
for later. Sensing the worry in his brother’s face
he tried reassuring him. It ain’t serious stuff.
Just some cut loose and feel smokes.
Watching the tame quiet of the whitening streets pass
his window Lou wondered where exactly
American higher education had
brought his family.
-Jeremy Nathan Marks