Even now, I don’t know why my dad bought it. It was a rare event for him to give a gift of any type, as benevolence was not his strong point. My guess is he either had a good night gambling or had bartered it in some type of sketchy deal. I didn’t care and I didn’t ask. He threw me the keys from the front porch, said “now you can drive yourself to school,” then went inside and slept the rest of the afternoon. We didn’t discuss it again.
I took a long, slow walk around, and the more I inspected it, the more it took on the feel of a vehicular stray dog. It was big, it was ugly, and it was most definitely a rescue. It couldn’t have been any more different from the pedigreed, decked out Suburbans currently wheeling through my neighborhood by latte moms on the way to spin class. But it did have something theirs lacked. It had character.
The remnants of a Gulfport – Where Your Ship Comes In logo shadowing the driver’s side door was just one of the scars from its prior job as a workhorse for the city. The body had turned a dusty, powdery white – any luster from the paint had long since faded after spending a lifetime parked out in the elements. There were holes in the floorboard, the back smelled like wet clothes, and I found out later that the windshield wipers only worked if you leaned your arm out the window and gave them a pull start. When I slid onto the front bench and turned the key, all eight cylinders roared to life. At that moment, any angst I had felt from my dubious first impression disappeared behind the cloud of smoke coming out of the exhaust. I was so happy to have something to call my own, I drove it to Hop’s second annual back to school party that very night. Within an hour after arriving, someone dared me to try and fit fifteen people inside it. We loaded up nineteen, plus one or two hanging off the bumpers before it started getting ugly – and we were just warming up. Later in the evening I pulled it in the backyard where it served quite handily as a makeshift bar, a stargazing perch, and, much to our surprise and good fortune, a righteous make out machine.
It didn’t take long for the Milk Wagon to become the go-to vehicle for pep rallies, football games and afternoon food runs. It was a gathering point in the morning before school, and a rallying point at late night parties and parking lots. We double- and triple-dated in it, and even took it camping one weekend where we draped my cousin’s Army-issue mosquito net over the open doors and slept in the back.
It was also a keeper of secrets. Unspoken ones steaming up the windows in the parking bays by the beach. Deep ones discussed cruising around town, free from parental intrusion and judgment. Lighter ones, too, like when a particular dickhead cop pulled us over on the way to a party and totally missed a twelve pack of Schaefer Light and a pint of Seagrams smuggled away and out of sight.
And then, of course, there’s the big one.
I opened the bottom drawer of my desk, moved a two-decades-high stack of expired At-a-Glance yearly calendars to the side, and pulled out an old manila envelope that had been handled, bent, and wrinkled so many times that the paper had taken on the soft buttery texture of a fine fabric. I turned it over in my hands, surprised at how light it had become, and gave it a closer look. The bank’s logo in the upper left corner – once a navy blue – had finally faded to the point where I could barely make out the edge of its signature magnolia blossom. The rest of the return address had been reduced to blurred smudges and an occasional semi-legible street number. Or was that the zip code? I couldn’t tell anymore.
The four names handwritten on the front, however, had maintained their crispness, so much so that when I put it up to my face and inhaled, I swore I picked up a distant essence of black magic-marker. Just the smell put me back behind the wheel, white knuckling down that country road with a lead foot – too naive at seventeen to fully consider the implications of what was about to take place, and too emboldened to care. I remember it being especially cool that morning, and I had the driver’s side window down, singing along to “Dancing with Myself” as loud as I could. It may very well have been the last pure moment of my childhood.
The laptop going blank caused me to lose my train of thought, and when I tapped the touchpad to wake it back up, the question that set me adrift in the first place was still waiting for an answer. Which one would I pick? I leaned back in my chair and crossed my hands behind my head. It was a no-brainer all right.
I would definitely go back to high school. And if I was truly going to get a do-over, as the ad suggested, I would start right where Hop’s party left off: the first day of our junior year. After all, it was the year that changed everything, and the year that everything changed. It was the year I fell in love. It was the year Mark started a band. It was the year Hop actually almost, kind of, but not really got a girlfriend.
And it was the year Nate Mayes disappeared.
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