Car Wash
Fred Melton

My daddy left me today. I suspect he's gonna be—my daddy, that is—I suspect he's gonna be afraid of soap and suds for some time to come on account of what happened at the automatic car wash.

You can say what you want to about my daddy and me. Most people do. But, that's just because they're ignorant.

For as long as I can remember now, we've been livin' in a blue '59 Buick Electra 225. It's got fins on the back end and real cowhide on the roof. My daddy says it's real, says he had it added on to make the car fancier. The Electra's got a silvery grille, four headlights and a slanted hood, makin' it look like it's snarlin' all the time. The cowhide's ripped up. Does a lot of flappin' in the wind. Not that the Electra drives that fast. The hide just flaps mostly at night when you're tryin' to sleep, when the wind comes whippin' across what's called the Texas Panhandle—which is what we do. We panhandle.

Well, mostly it's me.

We drive through lots of towns with names that, if you didn't pay no attention to the state you're in, which is Texas , you'd think you'd gone quite a ways. Miami . Memphis . Wellington . Nazareth . Broadway.

But, you'd still be in Texas .

When I say we live in the Electra, I mean just that. My daddy can't afford to rent nothin'. I don't mind, really. It's fun. Mostly. 'Cept, sometimes, for the stink. I mean, it's not like it's the end of the world not havin' a place like other folks. The Electra's a four-door sedan, so I sleep in the back. On the flat part up behind the back seat, there's a white plastic Jesus lookin' out the back window with His hands out like He's shoutin' Whadaya think you're doin'? to anybody who drives up too close. Hawaiian dolls with grass skirts that jiggle stand beside Him, one in each corner. With us livin' in the Electra, there's no grass to cut, no dogs to take care of, no neighbor kids shootin' arrows into your back yard. Takin' out the trash and doin' the dishes is as easy as rollin' down a window.

I keep my hair short, short as a Blue Healer's. I like it that way. Two reasons. First, I don't have to wash it. Two, people mistake me for a boy. Of course, I dress like a boy. I don't wear a bra or nothin', and I wouldn't even if I had to. I look old enough to almost be out of school, so nobody bothers me about that, sayin' stupid stuff like, "Why ain't you in school, boy?" I could probably get myself a job, if I wanted to. But, who'd take care of my daddy if I did that?

I talk to Jesus a lot. The Bible says He listens, even if He don't answer. Whatever the case, I do believe in Him.

My daddy likes to go to the drive-in movies. Well, we don't actually get into the drive-ins proper. He parks the Electra outside the exit, where the spikes stick up like sharks' teeth.

"They'll rip open your tires," my daddy says, "if you try to sneak in the back way."

I sit on the roof, with my legs flopped over the windshield and my bum and elbows restin' on the cowhide. The hair kinda tickles. This way I can see over the metal fence and watch the movie and all them people on the screen that are bigger'n life itself. My daddy says this is how his daddy first watched movies. Silently.

"T'wasn't no sound," my daddy explains, "'t all."

I like to think about my daddy's daddy, even though I've never met him, or seen anyone else in my 'mediate family for some time now.

I mostly miss my momma.

The last movie we saw was about a shark as big as the Electra that chomped on lots of people before dyin' from a big explosion after swallowing a can of gasoline. I told my daddy—and I prayed to Jesus that night—that I never want to set eyes on the ocean. I've often asked Jesus why He would ever allow such a terrible creature to live on this planet in the first place. He still hasn't answered me.

But, I know He's listenin'.

My daddy's a lot like Jesus in that way.

As you might expect, I talk too much sometimes and so my daddy don't bother to answer. On occasion, he'll stare out the windshield for long stretches, like he's hypnotized or somethin'. I know I should shut up then, but I get the jitters real bad and my mouth won't stop a'jawin'. That's the way I am. I talk when I get nervous. I wish I wasn't that way. But, what can you do? You can't change some things, once they've been that way for a long time. That's what my daddy says.

Take, for instance, my momma.

"If she don't wanna be with us," my daddy says, "then that's the way it's gotta be."

I don't recall her ever leavin' us, really. But, my daddy says she did. There's a lot of things I don't remember. That's another reason I pray to Jesus. I want Him to give me a bigger brain, so's I can remember things better.

My daddy says that's why we drive from town to town so much. "'Cause we're lookin' for your momma."

Sometimes, when he gets real mad, he starts chewin' on the inside of his mouth and blinkin' real hard and fast. If he does this for very long, his spit, as dried up as an old cobweb, creeps out the corner of his mouth. When I see that happenin', I know I have to be quiet. Or, better yet, go panhandle some money somehow, so he can buy his medicine. That's what he calls his Pabst Blue Ribbon. "My medicine."

It works, too. I've seen it.

I asked him once, a while back, I said, "If you're my daddy, how come we don't look alike?"

He got real quiet. His hands turned chalky white from squeezing the steerin' wheel. I thought he was gonna explode, like that shark did in the movie. I thought he thought I was talking about how fat he was. How his stomach pushes up against the steerin' wheel and his legs never come apart. I thought that was what he thought, so I said, before he got any madder, "I mean, I like your brown eyes, Daddy. I wish mine were brown, too."

He let out a big sigh, shook his head a little and then wiped his shiny forehead with the back of his sweaty hand. "You got your momma's eyes."

"I do?"

Something tingly happens to me when he talks about my momma. I feel funny all over. Kinda warm.

"Yeah, you do. Gray," he said, "like a wolf."

After that, his hands and fingers got pink again, and he quit chewin' on his mouth. I knew I'd done the right thing by shuttin' up.

One of the reasons we stay in Texas is so's my daddy can drive up to windows and get his medicine any day of the week, 'cept Sundays. It has somethin' to do with Blue Laws. I don't know why the law's that color, maybe it has something to do with the color on the cans of his medicine. My daddy can't walk far, on account of his size. Goin' into a store would be too hard for him, that's why I do most of the panhandlin'. And the food buyin'. I don't mind. It gets me out of the Electra. When he drops me off at a store's entrance, he always says, "I'll park right here in front, so I can keep an eye on things."

He don't want me to get lost or nothin'.

Some people turn around and curl up their lips or scrunch up their nose when they see me at the check-out counter. The ones all dressed up in their Sunday-go-to-meetin'-clothes are the worst.

They probably think they know Jesus better'n' I do.

Like last Saturday, while I was waitin' in line at the Piggly Wiggly Grocery Store. A real pretty lady all dressed up in her yellow Easter-lookin' outfit stood in front of me. She frowned at the four glazed doughnuts I was holdin' before accidentally smiling at me. Her red lipstick was perfect, her teeth Wonder Bread-white. Diamonds sparkled in her eyes. Her black hair had not a hair out of place. Lookin' at her made me feel sick inside, like my stomach had turned into a rottin', side-splittin' cantaloupe. So, I bit on my upper lip and stared at her glittery, high-heeled shoes. Her legs reminded me of polished toothpicks.

I kept lookin' at her tiny feet. Everything around me got cloudy and then disappeared. Even after her shoes drifted off, I still couldn't lift my head.


I heard the word, but it seemed like it was comin' from far off, like in a dream or somethin'.


I tried to swallow, shove down the sick feelin' I had in my stomach.

"How many doughnuts you got, son?"

The doughnuts in my hand miraculously re-appeared, like I was a magician or somethin'. I set 'em down on the counter. My vision started gettin' back to normal.

"That'll be twenty-five cents," the man in the light green apron behind the counter said.

I plopped down two dimes next to the doughnuts.

"You're short a nickel."

"They're five cents apiece," I said to the green apron. "Says so back there on the sign."

"Right you are," the apron replied, "but I saw you eat one on your way up here."

All the air got sucked right out of me. I licked my lower lip. The sugar suddenly tasted bitter.

"Do you want me to go get the manager, or—"

"—excuse me, sir."

The voice came from the end of the counter. My entire body got tense, like it always does just before I make a run for it. Everything started gettin' cloudy again.

"I'll pay for that extra doughnut."

The yellow dress was doin' the talkin'.

"You sure, ma'am?" the apron asked.

My legs got wobbly.

"I'm sure."

"Well, hold on. You got change comin'."

"It's okay." The yellow dress floated away, but not before addin' one more thing. "She can keep it."

My stomach flip-flopped. I felt doubly sick. At first, I thought I was gonna cry. But, then I got real angry. The entire Piggly Wiggly turned red.

"Looks to be your lucky day," the green apron growled.

I didn't reach for the change. I couldn't. My arms wouldn't work.

"Suit yourself. Change is in with the doughnuts." The apron slid the bag across the counter. "But you best not come in here again."

I grabbed the bag.

I don't remember nothin' else, least not 'til I bumped into the Electra. My daddy reached out the window and snatched the bag from me. I went around to the other side and climbed in.

"What's wrong with you?" he said. "You look like you seen a ghost."

"Nothin'." I just stared at my feet. "Ate too many doughnuts, I reckon."

"How you figure?" The bag rattled. "There's four doughnuts in here. You had twenty cents. They run a nickel apiece."

"I know. There's money in there, too. Help yourself."

I really didn't need to tell him that, on account he always keeps all the money anyhow.

My daddy gobbled down two doughnuts before he pulled out of the Piggly Wiggly parkin' lot.

We drove around town for a little while, until he found a place to buy his medicine.

"Let's take ourselves a little tour," he said as we left the drive-up window with a six-pack of Pabst Blue Ribbon sittin' between us. "There's gotta be somethin' interestin' in this little shit-hole, besides nickel-damn-doughnuts."

I didn't bother to say nothin'. My stomach still hurt and I couldn't get that yellow dress lady out of my head.

Especially after what she'd called me.

* * *

For the last, I don't know how many days, I've been thinkin' and dreamin' about the yellow dress lady. For the life of me, I can't get her out of my head.

When I get moody like this—which I'm prone to do—my daddy gets worked up. It happens every month, whether I want it to or not. I try to stop it. What's goin' on between my legs is nothin' to be proud of. It's nasty, for sure. But, there's two things I do like about it. One, it makes me think about my momma more. And secondly, it keeps my daddy's hands away.

On account of my mood, he has to take more medicine, least that's what he tells me. He says, "You're just like your momma when you get all crabby like that."

I don't exactly know what to say to that. But, there's a warm spot somewhere deep inside me that makes me feel good, righteous, like I'm connected to my momma somehow.

I must've been real moody today 'cause I blurted something out without thinkin'.

"I wanna see my momma."

My daddy's big belly jiggled up and down. I could see it movin' without even havin' to look at it, it's so big.

"Since when?" he laughed.

"I don't know. Just since."

"You won't like what you see."

I figured he was dead-wrong. But, I kept my trap shut.

"So, what makes you think she's gonna want to see the likes of you?"

His hands started chokin' the top of the steerin' wheel, then he huffed real hard.

I still kept my trap shut.

"So, you think she'll wanna see a little shit like you?"

As usual, things started gettin' cloudy.

"I asked you a question."

"I don't always," I said, "hafta answer. You don't, sometimes, answer me."

I couldn't believe those words just came a tumblin' out of my mouth.

Neither could my daddy.

"Don't you back-talk me!"

His fat fist landed square in the middle of my chest. It knocked the air clean outa me. I started coughin' real hard.

But, just so's you know, whatever bad things my daddy does to me, he can't hurt me. I won't let it. And neither will Jesus.

The Electra's tires screamed like eagles.

My hands shot up, too late. My head hit the dashboard. I looked out the windshield, thinkin' a cow or a jackrabbit must've jumped out in front of us. But, the road lay empty.

My daddy started blinkin' real hard.

After the smell of burnt rubber drifted off, my daddy kinda giggled, then stared at the back of his hands restin' on the steerin' wheel. He lifted his right one and held it in front of his face, turnin' it slowly, inspectin' it, like he'd never seen it before.

"I don't know why," he whispered, "these hands do what they do sometimes."

He started chewin' on his lip.

"It's okay," I mumbled. I shoved my hands 'tween my thighs. "I'm okay, Daddy."

"I don't know what I'd do if you ever left me, you know. If your momma took you away from me," he was mostly talkin' to the windshield, "I couldn't go on. I wouldn't make it in this godforsaken world without you."

"I know."

The Electra kept purrin'.

"Hey. Did you know that there's a town up here a ways that's got itself an automatic car washin' machine?" He shook his head and made a tisk-tisk sound. His voice got high and flimsy, like someone who'd just found himself a hundred dollar bill lyin' in the street. "You ever heard of such a thing?"

I shook my head. My face felt on fire. Two awful teardrops splattered on my pants. I tried to wipe them away, before he spotted them.

"Whadaya say we go have ourselves a look-see?" he said. "And let's forget about all this," his right hand danced and fluttered, "this other nonsense."

He tipped his head back and finished his medicine.

The sharp cracklin' of the can made me jump, the way I did when that shark came out of the ocean and landed on the back of that man's boat.

My daddy laughed, then tossed the crumpled can out the window. He gunned the Electra. It screeched like a hawk.

"Gawd-ah-mighty," my daddy hollered, "I do love power."

The car wash was nothin' special. I surely didn't expect Jesus to show up in a gray cinderblock, rectangular building on the outside of a big city called Amarillo, but then again, He shows up most every place, so who was I to question His reasons.

Out front, a boy sat on a stool beneath a sign that read:

Your Automobile Will Shine Like The Lone Star

When the Electra stopped, the boy didn't even lift his head.

"Damn kid," my daddy said, "'pears to be sleepin' on the job. Read me them instructions, would ya?"

I squinted.

"Hurry up, 'fore your boyfriend wakes up."

"Says to roll up all the windows and stay in the car." I cleared my throat. "Says the wash takes about eight minutes."

"That's all? For two damn dollars?"

"Guess so," I said. "Says it's an in-dust-real cleanin'. That your automobile will look brand-spankin' new when you come out on the other side."

"Hmph. 'Spect it should. 'Specially with a price-tag like that."

My daddy's forearm leaned into the steerin' wheel.

The boy nearly fell off his stool, at the sound of the horn, lit up like he'd been hit by a bolt of lightnin'.

My daddy chuckled and the Electra rolled forward.

The boy jumped off his perch, adjusted his cap that was in the shape of an armadillo sleepin' atop his head, and took his time comin'over. He wore a belt that had four metal cartridges hangin' on the front, where a belt buckle oughta be.

"Yessir?" he said, standin' beside my daddy's window.

"You the owner?" my daddy asked.

"Nah, sir. That'd be—"

"—whoever he is, I don't think he'd like to see you nappin' on his nickel."

"I's jes restin' muh eyes, sir."

"Why does the Deluxe Wash cost so damned much?"

"Well, due to the fact it takes longer." The boy nodded. "Takes an en-tire twelve, maybe more, minutes. But it's worth ever' penny." The boy shrugged. "Why this old car—"

"—here." My daddy handed the boy some money. "I don't care to hear your sales pitch. Give me the Deluxe."

"Yessir." The boy fiddled with one of the metal tubes. He pinched two quarters, side by side, then held 'em for my daddy to see. "Fifty-cents is yer change, sir."

"Do I shut off the engine?" my daddy asked, as the coins dropped into his hand.

"Yessir. An' be sure 'n' roll up all yer windahs. They's ain't 'lectric, is they?"

"'Course not. Does this 'pear to be a convertible?" My daddy shook his head, then rolled up his window.

I did the same, watching the boy wander back toward his stool. He reached up and pushed some big buttons on the outside of the building, then turned around and waved my daddy forward.

The boy went and stood in the middle of the square entrance, twitchin' his fingers, telling us to keep comin' toward him. Behind him, mist and spray started rollin' out like smoke. You couldn't see inside the building it was so full of steam and whatnot.

"The deluxe job better not," mumbled my daddy, "do anything to the roof. That hide cost me a pretty penny."

The Electra jumped to the side, gettin' itself centered. The boy stood his ground, cupped his hands around his mouth and yelled, "Take 'er outa gear!" He then motioned how to use the gearshift on the side of the steering wheel, as if my daddy didn't know that. He also turned one hand back and forth, to indicate how to turn off an engine.

My daddy let go of the steerin' wheel, floated his hands above it, lettin' 'em flutter like birds.

"Oooh," he said. "I've lost control." His voice quivered, like a pretend-ghost. "We're all gonna die!" He started waving at the boy, telling him to get out of the way.

The boy hopped to the side as the Electra inched forward. He adjusted his armadillo cap, and went and sat back down on his perch.

"Kid's an idiot," my daddy said, reaching for the key. "Couldn't find his ass if you handed it to him on a paper plate." He slapped his thighs. "Whoo-wee! Look at all that water," he added. "'Nough to make a man pee his britches. You ready?"

"Yep," I said.

The water rained down on the front hood like ten Texas thunderstorms. I tried to look past it all, to see what we were headed for. Nozzles squirted water like crazy. You couldn't hear yourself think, it was hittin' the Electra so hard.

I spun around to watch the spray move past the jigglin' Hawaiian girls, sheets and sheets of water runnin' over the back window. Jesus stood there like He was partin' the sea, just like He did in the Bible.

The Electra jerked to a stop. The water stopped, too.

I turned back around and looked over the hood. More nozzles, hangin' from a metal tube in the shape of a big horseshoe, dripped white foam just in front of the headlights. Behind the foam, great big black brushes, the size of tractor tires, started spinnin'. They sounded like blades on a helicopter with their Whump Whump Whump.

Next thing I know, my daddy's door opens.

"What are ya doin'?" I said.

"Done told ya. I gotta pee."

"Can't you hold it?"

"No," he said. "As a matter of fact, I cannot."

He leaned his shoulder into the door. "It'll just take a second."

As I said, on account of his size, my daddy don't move too fast. When he finally got out, he shut the door and dropped his pants. It's faster that way for him to go to the bathroom. I've seen him try to find "it" when he just unzips his pants. It takes forever.

Fortunately, the Electra sat still. The foam kept getting' thicker and thicker.

My daddy reached over and put a hand on the outside mirror, to steady himself. I couldn't hear the pee hittin' the floor, like I can when we're watchin' movies at the drive-in. But his shoulders shook, so I knew he was goin'.

"Hurry up, Daddy!"

He didn't hear me. He just kept on a'peein'.

When the Electra jerked forward, his hand slid off the mirror, his big, fat fingers clawin' across the wet window.

"Hurry up!" I screamed.

His hand was just slippin' and a slidin' all over the window.

I reached and got ahold of the steerin' wheel. I scooted into my daddy's seat. But my bum fell into the deep hole, where he's sat for so long. My nose barely reached the top of the steering wheel. I tried to turn it but I wasn't strong enough.

My daddy grabbed the outside door handle. With his other hand, he reached down for his pants. But, he couldn't find them. They'd slipped to his knees.

My daddy can't hop, 'cause his legs aren't strong. But, he sure tried.

And, the more he tried, the faster his pants fell.

I couldn't help it. If you'd seen all that fat jigglin' like that, you'd have laughed, too. Even if you didn't mean to.

My daddy started yellin'. "The brakes, goddamnit! Step on 'em."

I stomped on the brake pedal as hard as I could, but nothin' happened.

So, I tried to open the door, so's I could help him with his pants. But, it wouldn't budge, not with him holdin' on and all.

I started screamin' at him, tellin' him to let go.

The Electra kept on movin', on its own accord.

I shimmied into the back seat and tried to open the back door.

But, by then my daddy was layin' up against the back door. He still wouldn't let go of the front door handle. And, there was another problem. The back doors had their handles busted off on the inside. My daddy did that for my own protection, he said, in case we ever forgot to lock up the Electra at night when we're sleepin'. In case somebody tried to take me from him.

The black brushes kept gettin' closer and closer, and I went on a'screamin'.

"Let go," I hollered. "Let go of the door handle!"

But, he kept fightin' and hoppin'. He wouldn't listen to me.

My daddy kept tryin' to pull his pants up with his free hand. His eyes got bigger and bigger. He started blinkin' real hard.

It was when the big black things started poundin' on the Electra's hood that I heard Jesus.

At first, I didn't recognize His voice.

Jesus told me to be still. He told me to look straight ahead, to imagine myself walking beside Him. He told me not to close my eyes, to keep 'em wide open, and just keep lookin' ahead.

The brushes shook the Electra somethin' fierce. Like a hurricane, water and suds splashed everywhere. My head felt like it was made of Jell-O. Everything got blurry. I tried to talk to Jesus, but my mouth wouldn't move. My arms went limp and I felt floaty, like I was leavin' myself.

I shoulda been scared, but I wasn't, on account of two reasons. One, I knew Jesus would take care of me. And, second, this feelin' wasn't somethin' new.

Late at night, when I'm sleepin' in the back seat of the Electra, sometimes my daddy's big, sweaty hands find me, go to that place 'tween my legs. When his hands do that, I leave the Electra and go for a walk with Jesus. While we're gone, I ask Him to forgive me—for bein' a girl and for makin' my daddy's hands want to do those things.

A real loud thud hit the side of the Electra. Right after that, it jerked to a stop.

I forgot all about what Jesus told me to do and turned back to the window.

And there it was-my daddy's face, all twisted up. One eye was smushed and his mouth wide open and bent. I couldn't tell if it was spit comin' from his mouth or suds. His pink tongue sprawled itself all over the glass and his lips kept gettin' bigger and bigger, like those long balloons clowns blow up at the circus. He looked to be screamin'.

Just as his one eye closed shut, his big front teeth broke clean off.

That's when I left, to walk with Jesus.

* * *

You can say whatever you want about my daddy. Like I said, most people do.

For now, Jesus has took him someplace safe. And quite possibly, for a long time. He—Jesus, that is—told me not to worry 'bout nothin' no more. He said I'd never have to panhandle no more, or help my daddy buy his medicine ever again. He said He'd help me find my momma as long as I stayed put, right here in this Amarillo Police Station, until I could go home with a family I might not know, but one that would take care of me, give me a bed, a real one, to sleep in at night. He said I'd likely have to take out the trash once in a while and maybe feed their dog on occasion, should they have one, but that they—the family, that is—would let me grow my hair out as long as I wanted and take me to an air-conditioned, sit-down movie theater where you can eat yourself sick on popcorn and drink ice-cold Coca-Cola and I can see all the movies ever I wanted, that I wouldn't be afraid of the dark or the ocean or anyone else anymore 'cause He'd be right there beside me.

I know this to be true, on account of the fact that I took Jesus out of the Electra and put Him in my pocket after the ambulance men drove my daddy away.

Oh, and there's one other thing Jesus told me. He said I'd likely have a bedroom all to myself with a door and a lock on it so's I can keep people from comin' in, that it would be me who'd lock the door from the inside, which I think is a good idea, just in case my daddy's right.

That way, if my momma doesn't want to see me, when my daddy gets better and finds out where I am, I can let him in.

Copyright 2013. All rights reserved.

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