The Old Ford


First-Place Fiction

The stars flickered once and then went out. Slowly the sky’s midnight black faded into the calm, pale gray that meets the dawn. The shadowy silhouettes of the trees in the orchard and the old rusty-red barn became more defined, clearer; then suddenly, as the sun topped the mountains, it was all there.

A dog barked. The rooster called good morning to the hens and anyone else who was listening. The birds in the loft awoke, fluttered their feathers, then rushed out of their nests into the cool morning air to catch that last, late worm on the dewy grass. The cows stirred in their stalls; they wanted to be milked. A horse whinnied and stomped his feet as he nuzzled in the manger, looking for a wisp of alfalfa. The barn owl returned from a night of hunting with a field mouse for her downy young.

I heard the creaking of the stairs. Milk pails rattled and clanged in the kitchen, and the back door slammed shut. Turning over, I saw the clock by my bed. Dad was up early; it was only 5:30 A.M.

I closed my eyes. Maybe I could sleep for a few more minutes. The ringing of the alarm made me jump. Six o’clock! I had just closed my eyes.

Stumbling sluggishly, I got out of bed and pulled on my clothes as I sleepily made my way to the bathroom. I filled the sink with icy water and washed my face, then reached for a towel. Instead, I grabbed one of my sister’s blouses. That’s girls for you, always leaving their clothes strewn around.

As I went down the hall, I stopped at my sisters’ room and gave their door a few loud knocks. I heard one sit up in bed and the other groan.

“Cut it out, Bobby!”

“Yeah, we want to sleep. It’s Saturday, you know.”

“I don’t care. It’s time to rise and shine. Besides, mom needs you to help with breakfast,” I said. “Now get up.”

I clumped down the stairs. Mom was busy in the kitchen, and dad had just come in with the milk.

“What’s for breakfast, honey? I’m as hungry as a starved hog in the winter,” he said as he kissed her on the cheek.

“Just sit down, dear,” she said with a smile. “We’re having coffee cake. Now sit down, Bobby. Elizabeth, go see if your grandfather is up yet.”

Coffee cake for breakfast? We only had that on special occasions, and I really hadn’t thought that anyone would …

“Happy Birthday, dear Bobby,” sang my sisters as mom set the steaming cake down in front of me.

“How does it feel to be 18, son?” asked grandpa as he sat down next to dad. “I was about your age when I first got that old Ford. Today would probably be a good day to start putting it back together.”

I looked at grandpa with a dazed expression. I couldn’t believe it. For as long as I could remember, the old Ford had sat in the unused part of the cow barn. Time and time again grandpa had said, “Bobby, someday when you’re old enough, you and me will put that old car back together.”

So, someday had finally come.

The old Ford had been the first car my grandfather ever owned. He bought it as a young man after a bumper crop of wheat in the early 1900s.

He was a farmer like his father and grandfather. He had lived on the land and off the land all his life. Farming was in his blood, and he had passed on this love of the land to my father, who had passed it on to me. Many times grandpa would say, “I’ve been a farmer all my life, always had dirt on my hands and mud on my boots. I’ve sat on a tractor and walked behind a plow. Yep, I’ve been a farmer all my days, and I intend to die one!” Then his wrinkled, weather-worn face would smile, and he’d be off into the past, telling a story of days long ago.

The old Ford was almost always in these stories. He loved the car almost as much as the farm. It was a part of him. Renovating it was his goal, and now it was mine, too.

Grandpa and I worked on the car most of the afternoon. We stopped at about 4:00. There was a dance in town that night, and I was going to take a girl I hadn’t seen in a long time.

I had known Margie for as long as I could remember. We were in the same kindergarten class, and I used to pull her ponytail. In junior high I used to tie the ends of her dress sashes to the back of her chair during class, and then laugh as she got up and knocked her chair over. Most girls would have gotten mad but not Margie. She would just laugh, shake her finger at me, and say that I had better watch out; she was going to get me back.

But when we went to high school, something happened. Margie was no longer the skinny-legged, freckled-faced girl in knee socks and braces. Sometime during that summer she had changed into a willowy beauty with an electrifying smile and sun-streaked hair. She was so carefree and simple, always laughing, always there to listen.

But halfway through our sophomore year she moved to the city. It was quite a blow to all of her friends, me in particular. But she promised to write and visit when she could.

So, when she called me to tell me that she was going to be in town visiting her grandparents for a few days, I couldn’t help but get excited. She had always been so fun to be with, and I was sure I would have a good time. Two years couldn’t have changed us that much.

As I drove up to the house where her grandparents lived, my hands were sweaty and butterflies were doing acrobatics in my stomach. My legs felt like spaghetti as I got out; and as I knocked on the door, I felt my face flush to a deep, hot red. The door opened and there was Margie, still willowy, still beautiful. Smiling, she let me in.

“Hi,” she said. “Boy, it’s really good to see you again.”

“Hi yourself,” I stuttered.

“Grandpa and grandma are in the kitchen. They said they wanted to see you when you came.”

“Oh. I saw your grandpa in town the other day, but I haven’t seen your grandma for a long time,” I said as we walked down the hall toward the kitchen.

“Bobby, how’s your grandpa?” asked her grandfather. “I hope he’s doing well. Haven’t seen him around for a while. Now, we don’t want to sound old-fashioned, but what time do you think you’ll be home?”

I assured them that it wouldn’t be too late, and then we left. As we walked out to the truck, I heard Margie clear her throat. I looked at her, but all she did was smile and ask who was going to play at the dance.

“Oh, it will be records,” I said.

“Records. How different. At home we always have a band.”

“That really must be nice,” I said uncomfortably. Somewhere in the back of my mind, a little voice kept saying that this evening wasn’t going to be what I had expected. She just kept smiling.

All the kids welcomed her when we got to the dance, but as I watched her, I saw something that puzzled me. It was sort of an amused look, one that seemed to say, “I can’t believe the way you all act. I hope I didn’t act like this.”

We danced; then she danced with some of the others. Every once in a while I would see that same look. It bothered me, but what could I do? I just let it go.

On the way home, I asked if she had had fun.

“Oh yeah. I can’t wait to get home and tell the kids about it.”

I couldn’t help but wonder what exactly she would tell them. Her voice wasn’t the same as it used to be. She acted differently. Maybe it was just my imagination; it was probably nothing more than seeing old friends again. Whatever it was, I wasn’t going to worry about it; we were going to the county fair the next weekend, and I was sure we’d have fun.

I worked on the old car with grandpa that whole week. And as we worked, he would tell the stories I had heard so many times. The years seemed to turn backwards and sweep us away with them.

I was cleaning the carburetor when grandpa said, “Bobby, did I ever tell you what happened when I first got this old car? I’ll never forget the look on your grandma’s face when I took her for her first ride.” He chuckled to himself, then went on. “Bobby, you’ve never seen a woman more scared in all your life. The whole time I was driving she was yelling. ‘Look out for that fence! Look out for the ditch!’ Sometimes I thought she’d yell herself hoarse. I’d swerve all over the place, and she’d scream like a baby pig caught in a fence. I learned my lesson though. The next time I tried to scare her, she gave me one. She reached over and grabbed the wheel! That woman nearly ran me into the barn!”

He laughed out loud as he remembered. Then, eyes twinkling, he was off into another story. This time it was about how he had won the motorcar race at the county fair three years in a row. Then another about how some city slicker had tried to con him out of his car and how he had “showed him a thing or two.”

The week passed quickly, too quickly in fact, and it was soon time for the fair. I picked Margie up early; I was showing a calf, and I had to be there as soon as possible.

I won a blue ribbon and was pretty proud of myself, but when I showed it to Margie, all she did was smile that same smile she had given the kids at the dance the other night. But now I knew what it was that bothered me so much about it. Her smile was one of polite disinterest, as if to say, “You guys are nice and everything, but you’re so different, so uncool.” My stomach lurched inside me and my heart sank down to my toes. The old Margie was gone, gone forever. Somehow, she had gotten lost in the city.

We didn’t talk very much on the way home. She hadn’t had a good time (she’d nearly been kicked by a cow and run over by a Tennessee Walker), and I was depressed by my discovery.

I never saw Margie again after that. I saw her grandfather in town a few days later, and he said that she had gone back to the “big city.”

The days dragged by, even though I was working on the car with grandpa. He saw by my halfhearted enthusiasm that something was wrong and tried to cheer me up with his funniest stories. I listened and slowly began to feel better.

That week we finished the work on the engine. Grandpa was excited and wanted to take her for a trial run before we started on the body. So, I opened the barn doors up all the way and stood back to watch. He got in and gently ran his hand over the seat. The gleam in his eye reminded me of the excitement of a father watching his only child take its first few steps.

He tried to start it up, but the engine just sputtered and fell silent. He tried again, and again it died.

“Third time will be the charm,” grandpa yelled.

But as he tried to start it, a terrible rasping noise came from inside along with billows of black smoke and a deafening crash.

I ran to the car. Grandpa, coughing from the smoke, got out and sat on a bale of hay. I opened the hood and peered down into the remains of the engine, all black with burnt oil and grease. It was hopeless to think of fixing it again, and I knew it would hurt grandpa deeply when I told him.

But as I glanced over at him, I knew he already knew. His face trembled as he buried it in his hands. His back was bent, like a crooked cane, and he looked so old, so lost, so alone.

I went and sat next to him with my arm on his shoulder. Looking up, he mumbled, “I only wanted to bring it back, make it new, make it the way it was when grandma and I went riding in it.”

He sat there shaking, his heart crying out for the days of the past, somehow thinking that they could be brought back, rebuilt like an old car, this old Ford.

Gently I shook his shoulder.

“Grandpa,” I said. “Grandpa. Sometimes things just can’t be brought back or rebuilt. Sometimes we can only call back the memories.”

I sat there a while longer, then left him alone to sift through his days long past. Walking out of the barn, I could hear the cows softly mooing in the pasture and the hens clucking to their little ones. The sun was warm on my face, and suddenly I knew that everything would be all right for the both of us.

[illustration] Illustrated by Michael O. Rogan

[photos] Ford owned by Glen B. Cox; Photo illustrations by Gerald Bybee