My father was magical. My mother was an institution. To this day, the enigma both mystifies and haunts me. As a child, it consumed me.
One bright Saturday when I was fifteen, my father appeared in our gravel driveway, sitting behind the wheel of a brand new Mustang convertible. He flashed a magnetic smile, as if he had materialized the car directly from the prime time ads on our Sylvania TV. The finish was a dazzling fire engine red. The seats were white leather and the dashboard a technological fantasy of shiny knobs and colored dials. The front bumper was a stainless brazen smirk. Out on the by-pass, my mother ensconced in the bucket seat and me spellbound in the back, the Mustang prowled and cruised at my father’s slightest command. Its headlights winked. The white ragtop, ritualistically raised or lowered according to sightings of ominous clouds, enjoyed my father’s preferential treatment, surpassing that of the American flag.
This gleaming, growling four-wheeled beast marked Reed Austin Finley’s second coming of age. And so it was in 1965, at age fifty-six, my father inexplicably reinstated his status as the well-dressed entrepreneur, a man among men, who had first arrived in Asheville at the height of the roaring ’20s, impassioned with a manifest destiny to marry my mother and take the town by storm.
My mother responded with recognition. And caution. But I had never met this father. He astonished me. Mysteriously transformed from the moody nocturnal god of my elementary school years, this new father lived Icarus-like, flying shamelessly in the light of day. Casting off shirt sleeves and brogans and solitary nights laboring in the boiler room of his West Asheville dry cleaning plant, he emerged clean-shaven and unblemished. Trips to The Man Store yielded tailored suits of stylish cuts and fine fabrics, an array of silk ties, sporty canary-yellow slacks, and name-brand golf shirts bearing proper logos in proper locations. Clothes make the man, he expounded, speaking with minty breath in his native Tidewater dialect. Dressed in finery, he swaggered bold and virile, preening like a peacock before my mother’s practiced nonchalance and offering us rides to anywhere in the red Mustang convertible.
In this car, my father’s teeth were whiter, his hair darker, his face more richly tanned. In its presence, he moved like Fred Astaire and glowed with the countenance of a Cheshire cat. He told bawdy jokes. He laughed too loud. His youth firmly re-established, my father motored along the byways of Asheville, the ragtop down, the wind nearly raising his lacquer of thinning Brylcreem hair.
When parked at the plant, the Mustang remained stabled in safe surrounds lest some West Asheville plebian leave fingerprints on the finish. But every weekday at noon, it glided down Haywood Road, picked up speed on Patton Avenue, rolled serenely all the way up to Pack Square, and then around Vance Monument to the café on Broadway for a meat-and-three luncheon where business associates in brown and gray fedoras nodded their approval. Then it motored back to the plant by way of Clingman, my father seated in nobility behind the wheel.
My mother disliked the vehicle so much that, after tolerating a few obligatory Saturday afternoon tours, she declined all further offers. Pointing to the front-end styling, she would thin her lips and say, It looks for all the world like a big red nose with warts. But to me, the Ford Mustang was my father’s most spectacular magic act to date. He had manifested the Wondermobile and, in turn, it had manifested from its red and white womb a modern day miracle: my newly reincarnated father. And so, I worshipped the car as often as possible, always in my mother’s absence.
The Mustang as harbinger of my father’s rebirth went uncontested. Its impact on my parents’ marriage, however, was dubious. Overnight, my father became the quintessential man about town. Intoxicated on a new sense of self, he dallied with enterprising business deals, flashed his Diners Club card too often, and purchased endless flower arrangements for my mother. Her response to his overtures was singular and always began with Your Father, intoned as if it were my fault. Your Father is just putting on the dog. And besides, live flowers are a burden. They wilt, they die, and they fill up the trash can. In earnest, she began decorating the house with plastic arrangements. Over the years, her collection would expand until it filled the closets and, later, the entire attic with a glut of perfectly formed and never-changing hard plastic blossoms.
It was in my father’s red Mustang that I first learned to drive. My classmates were envious. I was humbled. On Saturday afternoons, smelling of Camel cigarettes and everything dry-cleaned, he would escape West Asheville and pick me up at our Haw Creek house. Casting white smiles and sunlit promises, he would escort me out to the old Asheville airport where I would take the wheel. But for all his qualities, magical and mundane, my father was just a mediocre coach. Instead of instructing, he would either yell at my novice mistakes or serenade me with Marlene Dietrich songs, complete with rasping German accent and sweeping cigarette gestures. Instead of mentoring, he would dream, fixing his eyes above the windshield on some mesmerizing future-point I could not see.
I took these shortcomings in stride. Simply basking in the luminous glow of my risen father’s magnificence brought me a sense of daughterhood I had never before experienced. Not even Elijah in his chariot of fire could compete with the mystical experience of driving the red Mustang convertible, my father beside me, dreaming himself alive.
After I received a learner’s permit, my father came home less frequently. After his apartment above the plant was expanded and remodeled, his trips home all but ended. He gave me a new French telephone and told me to call whenever I wanted to visit. Dial tones and telephone lines replaced the sun-drenched days of cloud shadows racing across our faces. But it pleased him to no longer drive all the way to Haw Creek at night with his to-be-spurned floral arrangements and then back to West Asheville at sunrise to open the plant. It pleased my mother to dust her plastic flowers without having to endure competition from a foreign species. At times, it pleased me to think that peace had settled in the great stone house, though it came at a bitter price: the long night weeping behind my mother’s bedroom door.
I had not yet turned sixteen when I met Rhonda Lee.
One cloud-ridden Saturday, when my mother had gone shopping, I tucked my learner’s permit into my best madras purse and took a city bus to West Asheville. Changing buses at Pritchard Park, I played out my whim against the hissing of hydraulic brakes and the stench of exhaust fumes. My giddiness over the surprise visit soared as the groaning contraption rattled across the Smokey Park Bridge and heaved up Louisiana Avenue, coming to rest near the plant. As the bus vanished in a haze of black exhaust and storm clouds to the west, I crossed the broken pavement of Haywood Road. I clutched the madras purse. I peered expectantly into the landscape. There it was, waiting for me, in front of the mundane gray building, the ragtop raised in protection. The red Mustang glittered. I glittered back. Sheer lightness of being lifted me. I bounded up the outside staircase, rising one long flight along the south wall of cinderblock and weeds. At his apartment door, I prepared my best "Hello Daddy" smile and knocked. I fluffed my hair and smoothed my skirt. I straightened my mother’s gold locket. I knocked again, louder this time. The door opened and I stared into a mirror.
“Yeah, whatcha want?”
She could have been me. But her hair was brittle from too much bleach. And her eyes, caked in blue-black shadow and too much mascara, were weary from excess or from lack, I couldn’t tell. Brass-colored hoop earrings, too large, sagged from her earlobes and a small roll of fat bulged above the waistline of her hot pink short shorts. The not-white tank top with fragile spaghetti straps bore a nondescript stain. Her nipples pressed urgently against thin fabric. Her nail polish, Mustang red, was chipped. She was invincible.
“Who are you?” I felt a sudden throbbing, near thunder, my own heart hammering.
She lit one of my father’s Camels and discarded the match at my feet. A plume of smoke blasted into my face. She slouched against the doorframe, filling the space, her right hip jutted out.
“Mr. Finley said to tell you he is indisposed.” Her words shot out with the rhythm of a nail gun.
“He would never say that to me. Who are you?” I consumed her smoke. Spikes of lightning rage—mine within my mother’s—streaked through my veins. “I. Am. Here. To. See. My. Father.”
One eyebrow lifted. Mascara eyes cut to the dark wall where a photograph hung, then back to my reddening face. She took another drag off the Camel.
“Da-yum.” She cocked her head and studied my Bon Marche outfit, my Bass Weejuns, the gold locket, the mirror of my eyes. “Well now, mercy, mercy me. I’ll be damned.” Without moving, she called over her shoulder. Her voice went dark and husky. “Roger, get dressed, hon. It’s your baby girl.”
She looked at the dark wall again, then at me. “Shit fire, you’re my age, ain’t you, sweetie?”
I didn’t answer.
On a long and silent journey, my father drove me home. Small rivulets of water moved like tear streaks up the windshield. I placed my mother’s gold locket inside my blouse, safe against my heart.
It was my final ride in the Wondermobile. Weeks later, the red Mustang magically vanished; either borrowed or stolen (I never knew which). It reappeared wholly transfigured: wrecked, abandoned, frame bent, totaled. On the Saturdays of my sixteenth year, I grew accustomed to driving my mother’s Oldsmobile. My father purchased a bark-colored tank-like Impala sedan, the car in which he would grow old.