My dad has his own Holy Trinity: the Son, the Gipper, the Intimidator. Jesus Christ, Ronald Reagan and Dale Earnhardt. I suspect he views Jesus as the lesser deity (a soul-saving medicine that must be taken with food) and that in his mind he has them all mixed up, like a daffy iconic sculpture of Jesus on the cross wearing a loincloth embroidered with Earnhardt’s "#3," and Santa Claus kneeling down in front of Reagan’s grave.
He called me on the day Dale hit the wall on the last lap of the 2001 Daytona 500. He had as much sadness in his voice as I had ever heard. I was plenty sad myself. Growing up, I knew the names of the top stockcar racers as well as I knew the apostles, and remember them today just as involuntarily: Cale Yarborough, Darrell Waltrip, Richard Petty, Bobby and Donnie Allison, Ricky Rudd, Buddy Baker, Bill Elliot and, of course, Dale.
In childhood you are a puppy, carried around by the scruff the neck, plonked down wherever it is your parents happen to be going. The years when you are too old to be carried and instead must be dragged, are the worst. My adolescent summers were like that. First, abandoned in the trench of an acre-long butterbean row, inhaling so many gnats that I was never hungry at lunchtime. Then, hauled North a couple hundred miles for scattered weekends at NASCAR races in Talladega.
1979 was my last summer of plastic hair barrettes, and my last summer of a training bra that I had trained with carefully formed hunks of toilet paper – See? I told my chest, That’s how it’s done! My last summer of embarrassing teeth, an arc so bucked out that squirrels whistled in appreciation, imagining all the nuts they could crack if they had a set like that. I didn’t know it then, but it was also the summer of my last NASCAR race. After my mother, brother and I spent several weeks harvesting peas and beans, corn and tomatoes, squash, okra and watermelon on my grandmother’s rural farm, my dad would be driving up in August to gather us all for the final race of the summer - the Talladega 500.
My grandmother’s cat had given birth to a lone kitten in the spring. The mama cat doted on her kitten, wouldn’t let us near it. One day when the kitten was about four months old, we watched as it rounded the corner of the house and was gone from her sight for several minutes. When the kitten returned, the mama cat hissed at it – not recognizing it as her own. For a long while, they spat and howled, before settling down a yard apart, tails twitching discontentedly.
They could have been my mother and me that summer. At thirteen, I became, overnight, unrecognizable to her. We communicated in spitty hisses, circled one another with arched backs, and settled in uneasy silence. Daddy’s reaction to my transformation was different. Whenever he saw me, for a split second he would search my face intently. If I had changed before, and so suddenly, it could happen again, and every time I rounded a corner I might return as someone else.
The Sunday morning of the race we met up with my parents’ best friends, a quarrelsome husband and wife, and their two sons, in the raceway parking lot. Any parking lot in central Alabama in August is likely to be a study in creatively exposed flesh, American beer apparel, and rebel flags. The 70's were no different. I was appalled, and comforted myself with the knowledge that I was adopted. My real parents were certainly library patrons, ballet lovers, wine sippers. They cried at the opera. My twin brother, however, loved the races, and I couldn’t claim to be unrelated to him. I could only pretend. I had with me a book that I had been saving all summer, Pride and Prejudice. I had cracked its spine a few times, and then closed it, knowing I’d need something grand to get me through race day.
I’m sure there have been hotter days, before and since, but I can’t remember any. The stands were steep concrete banks, many rows of skin-searing metal seats. Not a leaf of shade in sight. Our seat cushions were "life preservers" from my dad’s fishing boat. Mine was red-faded-to-pink with cracked piping that scratched the back of my thighs; it let out audible poots smelling of mildew and bait with every fidget. I had no intention of watching the race, and instantly opened my book, intending to lose myself, as I often did, within its pages: "It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife..." Just like that, I was in, immersed in the lives of the Bennet girls and their mother’s inept machinations, and then all of that glorious prose was overtaken by the truly deafening rev of modified engines and an announcer with the booming voice of an fevered Southern apostle, sent here to add a NASCAR chapter to the New Testament.
With a withering look toward my foreign kin, I snatched up my flatulent boat cushion and went in search of a quieter spot, a hint of shade, some respite from engine whine, fuel fumes and sweat-soaked humanity. In a reeking bathroom stall, I scraped the sopping toilet paper from my bra, and went outside to sit in the shadow of the outhouse building. All afternoon, I read, scooting my cushion along the ground, following the shade as it circled, avoiding the pyramids created by slaving ants, and the stickers that popped up through cracks in the concrete. I was more miserable, even, than forsaken Jane Bennet.
Daddy found me there at the end of the race, his frantic face breaking with relief when he saw me. "There you are! Hey, Baby, your guy won!"
I gave him my best pinball eye - steely, oiled to roll, lit up with contempt. "He’s not my guy. I don’t have a guy."
"Well you won the betting pool," he said.
"I didn’t bet on anyone," I informed him.
"You always bet on Darrell Waltrip, so I put five dollars in for you."
"I didn’t bet on anyone," I repeated.
He sighed deeply, and rubbed the bridge of his nose underneath his glasses, like he did just before he was about to either explode or deflate. He surprised me by doing neither. "You can buy a lot of books for forty bucks," he said, holding out the wad of cash. I took it from him in an ingracious grab, and stuffed it in my pocket.
As I said, that was my last race. Thereafter, I was allowed to hole up in the hotel room with a stack of books, or stay behind at a friend’s house.
A few weeks ago I came home to this message on my answering machine: "Baby, we got some fish. Mama caught a big redfish. She’ll tell you all about it. We got trout and snook too. We’ll be passing your place in about an hour. If you get this, give us a call and we’ll stop by. I love you, Baby."
By now I realize I’ve always been more Delta Dawn than Elizabeth Bennet. I like beer, American beer when it’s done right. I tried opera, and it left me cold. I haven’t seen a race in many years, but I shed a tear for Dale when he finished the race of his life just shy of the checkered flag, and I’m in my forties and my daddy still calls me "Baby." Ain’t that just the sweetest thing?