Dad showed me how to change oil on the ’79 Ford Grenada before I took it to college. I got underneath the white car, scraping my back on the metal planks in front of his shed. I positioned the greasy pan under the oil plug and unscrewed it. The viscous liquid spilled over my hand into the pan.
“Is it done?” he asked from above. I could see his brown leather work boots and the hems of his gray herringbone coveralls.
“I think so,” I said, watching the last of the oil drip down.
“OK, put the plug in tightly and come back out.”
I scooted into the bright, piñon-scented light, my hand oily. He gave me a rag to wipe with. We took the filter off, screwed the new one on, and poured in five quarts of clear, clean oil.
Cars, trucks, motorcycles, tractors, generators, engines and motors of all kinds: these were my father’s life. He understood their inner workings, their moods, their problems, their solutions. He spent weekend afternoons peering under hoods and up into chassis, observing, guessing, diagnosing. When he didn’t understand what rattled or leaked or otherwise broke down, he’d pull out manuals and study them with the studiousness he must have once applied to mathematics textbooks in graduate school.
He always figured things out. He always fixed them.
My boyfriend Arun and I stopped at a gas station in Iowa, worried that the shiny red 2003 Toyota Tacoma we were driving across the country from California to Ohio, the truck I’d inherited from dad a few months before, was using too much fuel, perhaps had a fuel leak. Not knowing how to open the hood, we consulted the manual, and as soon as we did I saw my dad’s notes about maintenance he’d done on the truck, his handwriting cramped and almost indecipherable. They told a detailed, rational story of oil changes, new tires, battery charges, brake pad checks.
We popped the hood and looked around for some sign of a leak, but finding none, we got back on the road.
While Arun drove, I studied the manual, reading my dad’s notes, still looking for a sign.
When I was six I had a nightmare about a flatbed truck dad had bought from a government surplus auction. In the dream, he drove toward me as I stood immobile on our dirt road. It had, though, an empty driver’s seat. The driverless truck barreled toward me, the engine roaring, dust flying up on the road behind it.
My dad’s drinking binges, dizzying mood swings, and unpredictable temper terrified me. But I could never reconcile that father with the sane one, the one who donned a tie on Monday mornings, liked to talk about politics, taught me to change a car’s oil, fixed things that were broken.
I try not to think about the moment my dad shot himself, the moment that can’t now be fixed. I try not to see the deep red spreading over the carpet and underneath into the cool blue cement below.
My sister and I spent days cleaning out dad’s house, sorting through paperwork, office supplies, towels. Throwing things out. Taking trips to Goodwill.
In one closet, we found a stash of medications, bottle after bottle of the anti-anxiety medication BuSpar, which he had apparently stopped taking years before.
He’d told me once how much it had helped him. How when he felt the rushing, uncontrollable, frightening anxiety coming on, he just needed to take one, and everything would ease up. He would calm down. He could focus on living.
We threw out dozens of these bottles, all of them full.
A few months after getting the truck to Ohio, I showed my newly licensed son, William, how to check its oil and tire pressure. How to add windshield washer fluid. How to read the manual.
“What’s all that writing?” he asked.
“Those are grandpa’s notes,” I said, pausing, uncertain what more to say. “You’ll want to read those, too.”
Vivian Wagner is an associate professor of English at Muskingum University in New Concord, Ohio. Her essays have appeared in The Kenyon Review, Zone 3, The Pinch, and other journals. She is also the author of Fiddle: One Woman, Four Strings, and 8,000 Music.