So this originally appeared in Appalachian Heritage, like a million years ago. Just a little story about a girl, a boy and a hubcap...
At her cocktail parties, my mother could never resist telling everyone how I was conceived in the back seat of a '57 Chevy. "My little Katie is part Chevrolet," she'd say with that great laugh she's got.
This confused me when I was little and we were studying American Indians in school. When we learned about all the different tribes and their reservations, I got it in my head that Chevrolet was a tribe and the dealership where Daddy and Granddad worked was like the Chevrolet Reservation. My teacher said the Indians felt they had been cheated by the white people, and they spent a lot of time sitting around their reservations complaining. I'd been to the dealership enough to know that nearly everyone who came in there talked about being robbed blind, taken for all they were worth.
Sounded like the same thing to me.
My parents had no idea we were part of a tribe of car dealers until we took that vacation to Wilmington, North Carolina, when I was ten. To get there, you had to pass by Cherokee, a real tourist-trap of an Indian town a lot of people visit on their way to the beach or to the mountains for camping. I think Daddy would love to have camped, but you do not take Penny Fay Mullins to a place with no indoor plumbing, thank you very much. So we were on our way to Wrightsville Beach, where we had a house for two weeks.
It was a long drive. It took about twelve hours to get down there from Kentucky. Too short to make it a two-day trip, too long for a one-day trip to be pleasant. Momma and Daddy had started arguing somewhere near the Tennessee-North Carolina border, where 1-40 started whipping around the mountains and Daddy started racing semis.
Then I saw the signs for Cherokee and started begging. I figured this was my big chance to see what other reservations look liked.
“Daddy, we gotta stop! I want to see a gift shop. Pretty please with sugar on top!”
I was thinking these shops would be like the parts counter at the dealership back home. I loved that counter – all those shiny hubcaps and nuts and the cash register. I used to steal the little pads they wrote down orders on. I'd make my friends play Car Repair with me, which consisted of one girl scribbling down on the yellow pad of paper while the other (usually me) hopped up and down yelling, “You're takin' me to the damn cleaners!”
I don't think we would ever have stopped, if they hadn’t been so tired of hearing each other. Daddy sighed and said, "All right honey, but we can only stay for a half-hour. Your mother and I are tired from all this driving, and we'd like to get to the beach house."
"That's okay, Daddy." I answered. "You and Momma can sit in the chairs in the gift shop."
See, I knew they'd have chairs, just like in the dealership waiting area back home. Daddy kind of raised his eyebrow at my mother, but she just shrugged. She thought I was crazy from the day I was born.
We pulled off the highway and drove down the strip of Tee-Pee Hotels, Wampum Gas Stations and the Little Squaw Beauty Salon. It all looked enough like the Mobile stations, Burger Queens and muffler shops that surrounded Daddy's dealership. I figured I'd come to the right place.
Now, I got a little confused once we pulled in front of this store, because the fake log-cabin did not look like the clunky cement building where Daddy worked. But I was worldly enough to realize I couldn't expect everybody to do stuff exactly like they did back home. This was North Carolina, after all.
I was busting to get out of the car and jumped out the minute Daddy turned off the engine. I ran inside, where it was cool and dark and smelled like chewing tobacco. I saw shelves of dolls dressed as squaws, miniature tomahawks and plastic peace pipes hanging from the walls. But I didn't see plastic chairs, racks of spark plugs or bottled wax.
So I went up to the teenage boy behind the cash register, who was smoking a cigarette and fiddling with the knobs of a radio like there were no customers in his store. This was no big shocker to me. Daddy was real professional and would never sit down if there was a customer in the store, but the minute he was out in his office talking with Granddad, the other counter guys just sat around and drank Pepsi. You practically had to shout to get them to notice you if you wanted something.
"Excuse me, sir," I said to him. He flipped back his black bangs and looked at me with a blank stare. He had a white tank-top on and jeans, and around his neck hung a leather cord with a tiny silver cow skull. He looked at me like I was mud, like anything as small as me was just too much of a bother. When he raised his eyebrow, I saw a small light scar near his left eye.
He was the coolest guy I had ever seen.
"Um, I was just wonderin' where your parts are." I sounded so stupid! I couldn't talk to him like a normal person. Because he was so ... much more than normal.
"Parts?" He asked me, his eyebrow going up even higher. “What kinda parts?”
“Like, you know … car parts.”
He shook his head. “Car parts?” He nodded toward a door behind him. “Well, my uncle keeps some tires and stuff for his shop out back, don’t know if that’s what you’re looking for.”
I sucked in my breath and concentrated on not acting like a baby. "Yes. That is, in fact, exactly what I'm looking for."
I couldn't believe it. This was the real deal. All this toy stuff was just for dumb kids to look at while the adults settled down to the real business of buying parts. Out of the comer of my eye, I saw my mother at the jewelry case. I ran over to my father real quick.
"Daddy, remember when you said I could have my month's worth of allowance early, if I wanted to buy a souvenir? I need that right now."
"Well, honey, what do you want to buy with it? That's all the money you get to spend on this trip, you know."
I looked back at the cashier and smiled real cool, you know. Then I talked real low, 'cause I couldn't let this guy know I still got an allowance. "Daddy, I swear I'll never ask for anything again if you'll just give me twenty bucks."
"Twenty dollars is a lot of money, Katie Drew. Your allowance is only two dollars a week. You know that."
"Daddy, please! I will owe you for the rest. I'll rake the leaves, clean the house. I'll do anything. I just need that money!" I was in love and desperate.
Daddy looked at me kind of weird. But he was used to women weaseling money out of him, so he finally shrugged. "Like mother, like daughter. You can have your twenty dollars, but no allowance for the next couple months, then. And don't come cryin' to me next month when you want somethin' else this bad."
"Daddy, thank you, thank you. I won't!"
Then I marched the twenty-dollar bill back to the counter. "Sir, I'd like to see your parts."
He looked at me, all skeptical. "You sure your parents let you buy the parts?"
"Yes, sir. I'm pretty much in charge here. They're all wore out from drivin', so they let me take over."
"Okay," he shrugged, and motioned for me to come around the counter. "You can come out and look at 'em. And quit callin' me sir. My name's Tee-John."
Tee-John. It was the best name ever.
I stepped around and stood right next to Tee-John as he unlatched the screen door, smacked it open, then held it for me. I was so close to him, I could smell a big whiff of Old Spice, which is what Granddad wore. I didn't want to think about that, though. I didn't want anyone else in the world to smell like this now.
"Thank you, Tee-John," I said as I stepped out. Just saying his name gave me goose bumps. I hoped I sounded like Momma did when we'd leave the mall and some cute guy would hold the door for us and she'd thank him in that tone that didn’t sound like a mother.
"Careful of them steps!" he warned me, like a real gentleman. So I was careful going down the cracked, green-painted wooden steps that led into the backyard.
And what a backyard it was.
There was a huge wall around the whole yard, made out of tires stacked up just as high as you could see. And there was this old school bus painted purple, leaning on its side in the way back of the yard. All around the yard were rows of old engines and smack in the middle was the burnt-out shell of what had been an orange Camaro. Piled next to the Camaro, like stacks of giant coins, were shiny hubcaps, polished brighter than the gold bracelet Daddy gave Momma for their anniversary.
"Pretty cool, huh?" Tee-John asked me, his sullen eyes brightening for a moment.
"Yeah." I could barely even breathe. "Pretty cool."
Tee-John pointed to the school bus and announced, "That's my place. My uncle and me, we fixed up this yard, but the bus I did all myself."
Oh, I wish you could have seen that bus. He had the whole thing painted, like I said. And though there was kudzu all around, there was none covering the windows. I figured it was all clean in there. I swear it was like a big purple flower with green all around it, like you could live in there, and it would be all cool and quiet inside.
"Wow," was the only thing I could even say. I wanted to live there. I wanted to live in the bus with Tee-John. We'd run the store, and I'd get one of those cow-skull necklaces just like his. I didn't care if I ever saw my parents again. I had seen heaven and wanted it so bad. I wanted to dye my hair black just like his. I thought of my baby-blue and white room back home. It made me sick with shame. I wanted kudzu in my room. I wanted tires and a boy who looked like he didn't care about anything.
"Okay, let's get down to business," Tee-John declared. "I got used tires on special this month, a couple tailpipes dirt cheap, and spark plugs that are just like new."
"How much for one hubcap?" And even though I knew I could get me one used back home for ten, I was praying like crazy: Oh God, please God, don't let it be more than twenty. I know this is North Carolina. I know it's probably more expensive. But I swear, if you let me have it for twenty, I'll clean my room, I'll be nice to everyone, even stupid Kenny Kelly. Honest.
"I can give you a sweet deal on this one." Tee-John walked over to the Camaro and pulled out a slightly dented but sparkly cap. "From a Caddy that ran into a tree off the highway. I hear the people in it died."
"They died?" Oh, man … this was it.
"Yep. Worse'n that," Tee-John paused. "They were newlyweds."
"Oh, no," I cried, clutching the twenty I had somehow removed from my pocket and was holding like a charm.
"Yeah. They were on their way to their honeymoon in Wilmington."
"Oh my gosh, that's where we're going." I couldn't believe my luck.
If only I could afford it. I knew you just could not put a price on this type of tragedy, but I hoped like anything I could get this one for twenty.
"Well," Tee-John looked down at my fist, then looked away real quick. “I probably shouldn't sell it, being like a historical piece or whatnot." He narrowed his eyes and thought for a second. “Guess I could let it go for fifteen."
"Sold, Tee-John!" I was way beyond happy as I handed over the money. Tee-John polished the rim with the dirty hem of his tank top, then gave it to me. My hands touched his, and I felt the spark go through me, like when I accidentally stuck my finger in the outlet back home. I held that hubcap tight, letting its sun-drenched heat soak into my skin.
I couldn't wait to get in the car, just to run my fingers over where his shirt touched the rim.
"I gotta get back to the store. Now don't you tell anybody what you paid for that!" Tee-John looked right at me with his big brown eyes. I was touched he didn't want anyone to know what a sweet deal he had just given me. He felt down in his back pocket and brought up a dirty, tan plastic wallet, imprinted with the faded image of a motorcycle. He folded up my twenty and stuck it inside, then brought out a barely-green five dollar bill, which he smoothed-out with his thumbs and handed to me.
Then he turned and took the rotting stairs in one leap, with me right behind.
"Honey, are you ready to go?" Momma walked up to me, holding out her hand. "See what Daddy's getting me?"
She wiggled her fingers to show-off her new turquoise ring. "Now what did you get, Miss Katie Drew?"
I looked up at mother's flushed face. "Hubcap, Momma." Then I waved at Tee-John, who was at the cash register with my father. "Bye, Tee-John!"
And I swear, he winked at me.
I was outta there fast. I knew my parents wouldn't understand, and I didn't want to deal with a bunch of questions in the store. I waited by the car till my they came out, Momma saying something to Daddy and both of them looking at me with my hubcap. They thought I was crazy, but I didn’t even care.
"Now, what exactly did you buy?" Daddy asked me.
"You heard her, Bob," Momma answered, fanning herself with her hand. "She bought a hubcap. Now unlock this car and tum on the air, before we all die of heat."
She gave Daddy that we'll talk about this later look as we all got in the car, but I knew I'd never hear anything more about it. They'd talk about it to each other maybe, when we got to the beach house and they'd had a gin and tonic. It would give them something to worry about, beside themselves.
I just held that hubcap as we drove back onto the interstate, keeping my eyes peeled for where that accident might have happened.