Even after I started to work in my father’s real estate business, he and I meshed well only on our fondness for automobiles; outside of that, our gears frequently clashed. This was so, I think, because he had two families, and the one he spoiled during the workday left him stripped of his humanity at the day’s end. He was a landlord, and a nice one, the landlord from heaven. God himself must have ordained that he have the job. The tenants, all eleven floors of them, really amounted to his children. He hated hearing them complain, so he provided in a most personal and heartfelt way whatever it took to make them happy, smiling, and peaceful human beings. He breathed hard all day. He ran fast every day. One of his employees, a huge, strong black man who worked for him since day one, said that when an air conditioner fell from a fifth floor window, my father tore down the stairs and reached the concrete first. The building was his empire, and he did everything to nourish and protect it.
To add insult to the daily injury he heaped upon himself, he had controlling interest in another building and shouldered the responsibility, while his brother, who owned minority interest yet hardly ever saw the place, got the lion’s share of the income. The whole enterprise was a bitter pill my father swallowed daily, and the chaser was the two shots of bourbon he threw down immediately after he returned to his castle at each workday’s end.
Once upon a time I will never forget, a soft-spoken young man who lived in the apartment building—the “other” building—came to my father’s office to say that he might move out, but he couldn’t say exactly when. So he quietly asked my father to play ball with him as my father continued to demand a definite move date in increasingly louder tones. The young man was unwittingly laying a chunk of tender meat before a man who could humble a pride of lions. My father yelled at him in between his uncertain pleading; I sat in the outer office listening to my heart pound. As the young man left the office he was shaking a little, his gaze was aimed at the floor, and his eyes were working overtime making tears.
By that summer, I was in my third year of Life as a Licensed Driver, and the magic of cars and driving just kept building. On one inauspicious Sunday, I’d gone to watch a bunch of cool guys maneuver sporty foreign cars around a mock road course laid out on the parking lot at North Hills Mall in Raleigh. It was all about hustling the car around corners without losing the rear end and spinning out. Somehow I’d convinced my father to come along. We were there an hour. I had no idea the man could sit still that long. It was a hot summer day; everything was hot. The asphalt was hot. The odor of screaming hot engines and rubber tires pushed to their limits filled the air. When I said something to my father about how much fun it would be to drive like that, he immediately lowered the boom. “Don’t you ever let me see you doing anything like this,” he said sternly, with a strongly accusatory look aimed right between my eyes. He did not mention the fenders I’d already bent.
We rode home together in his new BMW Bavaria, a car that went like stink and reeked of that teutonic superiority that makes German cars so alluring. I’d instigated the pitch for one, and one whiff was all it took. I was hooked. A few years back my father admitted he’d always wanted a Cadillac, and he had a few of them. But with the start of his fifth decade, he must have had a yen for something exotic, like the pair of Jaguars he had in the late fifties before work and family life forced him into cars that started on command and ran without prodding. For his money the athletic BMW won hands down over a torpid Mercedes-Benz that, as he put it, “Wouldn’t go up a hill.”
My hands and feet were still hot and itchy when we parked the BMW at home. As soon as everything got quiet I grabbed the keys and headed out to my favorite winding country road. It was that reverse-banked turn on the way back that got me. I hit the brakes, and the view through the windshield changed from east to west in a big hurry as the car came to a stunning halt. As soon as I could think again, all I wanted was to erase the last 15 seconds. “Time is reversible, isn’t it? What was that post doing right next to the door? Try the key. Dammit, it’s got to start, it’s only a month old. Try again. What’s that sound?” My thoughts were desperate. I felt sick. Something inside my chest broke loose and started spinning up to my head. There wasn’t a soul in sight. I walked to a house. I asked them for the phone. Somehow I still knew the number. My mother answered. I said little, just the essentials. All she had to hear was the knotted hesitation in my voice. I hung up, walked back outside to the immobile BMW, and waited for my father.
I soon saw him headed my way in the white Oldsmobile Vista-Cruiser whose fender I’d bent several months before. The car was somewhat at odds with the road. The right side wheels were kicking up rocks from the shoulder. I could see them flying as the car got closer. They made angry sounds, like gunshot to my burning ears as they ricocheted off the underbelly of the car. The tires dug into the gravel as the car ground to a halt. A cloud of dust blew by. My father opened the door and got out. He looked at me and then pointed to the driver’s seat of the wagon. “Drive!” he ordered. His breathing was monstrous. He was rabid. I had no choice. I was a dead man—a dead man with a bad case of nerves—driving that smooth-riding Oldsmobile all the way home in complete, terrifying silence.
That night we had to attend a bar mitzvah. It was a very happy, joyous occasion. Lots of happy people were there, the wonderful Iraqi family whose son was becoming a man, and many of our dearest friends. Even God was there. The family was very happy to see us. Everyone was smiling, including my father, whose face that entire night was that of a madman, a terrorist whose plot failed to hatch. He spoke not a word to me that night and very little in the seven days that followed. Like God, he had his hands full creating the world every day, but he never remembered to honor the Sabbath—he worked himself into a frenzy.
The guy who fixed the car took a month because he’d never worked on a BMW before and the parts had to come all the way from Germany. From then on it was loaded with idiosyncrasies. It never ran right, the air conditioning couldn’t handle the summers, it rode funny, the brakes sometimes wouldn’t stop it, and the engine’s camshaft wore out before the tires did. It was an exciting car, a good car in many ways. But that slow Mercedes Dad passed on was the better car.
My father’s parts began to wear out, too, several years and many cars—usually nice, safe, slow Volvos—later. Outside the hospital two days before he died, I found a lost rabbi who couldn’t find the patient he’d come to comfort. I persuaded him to visit my father. The two had not met, probably because my father nearly became a Presbyterian in his later years: his heart was captured by a thoroughly Scottish Presbyterian minister who presided over breakfast meetings in a church near his building.
After a brief introduction, Dad seized on this opportunity to inform the rabbi, a man connected with God, what a son-of-a-bitch his son was (he felt that way because, to mend my busted heart, I moved out of the state after his cancer diagnosis, and he had to replace me at work. My timing wasn’t the best, but the change worked in favor of everyone). The rabbi was oddly nonplussed. My mother expressed her usual dissatisfaction with my father’s word choices. “Bobby, watch your language!” she intoned, just as if his closing moments were nothing unusual, nothing different from all the others they’d shared. I thought he was wise to get it off his chest. I said to my mother, “Let him say whatever he wants.” He’d earned this moment. He had this business to finish, and he did it his way, honestly and directly.
The night before he died, I stood there in the hospital with my mother and sister in quiet conversation as we watched the man who’d been the dominant force in our lives finally get some rest. His had been a difficult life, and quite long enough considering the speed at which he lived it. He was that BMW Bavaria in human form: fast, handsome, dashing, and tough to control in the bends and twisties—a human design not fully worked out, but he did his very best.
After a few more moments, he awoke in a gentle state I’d never seen in him. He looked at us and asked quietly, “Why are you all here?” The answer came out of me so readily, so easily, and so honestly that I couldn’t believe myself. Before anyone else could speak, I said, “Because we love you.” After hearing those words, he closed his eyes for the last time.
You never know. I mean, you just never really know. Every moment’s loaded, and every moment counts.