Jugaad

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From the Oxford English dictionary: jugaad, n.                                                    [‘A makeshift automobile constructed from inexpensive materials.’]

Because of my mother’s need to lighten her burden after my dad left, Melanie and I rented a house alone.  I was just out of high school and Mel was fifteen.  I drove a Honda scooter that could barely carry two up a slight incline.  Still too young for a driver’s license, Mel bought a ’51 Dodge for two hundred fifty dollars. 

Its humped contour, combined with the brush-painted lilac exterior looked like a lurid Easter egg rolling down the streets.  The driver’s door handle and latch were broken, and exiting meant Melanie had to coax her window open and undo a brass slide bolt screwed to the outside of the car.  

Every night that summer, we cruised Kansas City in her car with an unspoken permit for good girls gone awry.  On one of them, we attracted five boys in a three-tone rumbling jacked-up jugaad.   While they followed us down Main Street, our friend hung her torso out the front passenger window.  Before long, a dark green sedan with two women materialized beside us.

“Pull over, you little whores,” the Medusa haired passenger yelled.  

Melanie and I looked at her and sang our go-to for disapproving adults: ‘What a drag it is getting old.’

“If you know what’s good for you, stop your car.”  Mel sped up.  The Dodge sputtered.  The driver forced her to jump the curb onto the empty sidewalk.  The only thing The Dodge’s tires had in common was baldness, and within seconds, two were flat.

She hit the brakes and I said, “Keep going, Mel.”

“I can’t drive on the rims!”  We learned that from our mother.

“Who cares about the rims if we’re dead!  Go.  Go!”

By then, Medusa was outside our window.  “Get out of that heap.”

Nearly petrified, I managed to lean toward the window and say,  “What could you possibly want.”

“I want you to get out of that car.”  In an unfamiliar work type uniform, she stood taller than our mom who was six feet, one inch.  “Where is your mother?”

“None of your beeswax,” Melanie said.

To no avail, the woman grabbed the dead door handle.  Her rage prevented her from noticing the slide bolt right next to it.  I reached across and opened the passenger door, shoved our friend out, and as we scooted across the seat to follow, our tormentor captured a handful of Melanie’s luxurious tresses.  

“Steph, she’s got me!”  Turning back, I gave the woman’s wrist a quick karate chop, she let go, we stumbled onto the sidewalk and into the arms of the boys from the jalopy.  In all the commotion, we’d forgotten about them.

As motley as their car, all five circled us, including a Vietnam vet on crutches, one leg missing.  The oldest, tall, dark, and Buddha soft, grabbed the swinging passenger from behind.  She thrashed and screamed, “Little whores, they don’t know what they’re doing.”  

“They’ve got the message,” he said, barely above a whisper, “You need to stop.”  As if hypnotized, Medusa collapsed and the episode came to a close.  The boys drove us home and Melanie quickly replaced the Dodge with a red Volkswagen Beetle.

Back then, I believed our independence and luck were beyond cool: they were epic.  It took many years to recognize our nocturnal forays for what they were: a need to be seen.  Otherwise, we never would have collided with the viperous Medusa and her particular desperation to exercise adult supervision.   

Photo by Marissa Bridge

 

The Unraveling

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In the summer of 1964, a sixteen year old invited me to a Beach Boys concert.  My mother drove me from one end of Kansas City to the other.  In the car on the way to my date’s home, I imagined myself in love, but by the time we arrived, I went mute.

His mother, a petite cotton clad homemaker, known for doing her part in a solid marriage, invited us inside.  At more than six feet, my mother towered over most people, especially her.  Their difference hurt my eyes.   Mom had on what was then called a squaw dress: bare shoulders and swirling skirt with rick-rack on the edges.  (Still under wraps except in our household: my dad was nowhere to be found.)

As Mom walked to the car to leave, she casually said, “Goodbye, cruel world.”  I was used to her final proclamations, and assumed I would see her after the evening ended.  But I didn’t know when I would see my dad, if ever.

Settled at the concert like two opposing magnets, we sat behind a girl who scratched at her face and bawled at the first note from the band.  As her frenzy progressed, one scream at a time, the buttons down her back came undone.  The first one exposed her bra.  I noticed right away that only one of the two closure hooks was fastened.  A teenager’s bra hanging by one hook meant my date avoided looking at her, and I averted my gaze from his.

At the end of the last song, when the girl stood to go toward the exit aisle, her friends discovered her bare skin.  With only the top button remaining closed, once again, they hit the high notes of hysteria.  Someone threw a coat over her, and then stared at me like I might have done something to help.  But I was impervious to her scorn, to the music of The Beach Boys, to my date’s attention. The only thing on my radar the night of my first concert, was an unraveling.  And I was helpless to change it.

The Tower of Sol

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On the descent into Kansas City, Missouri, to see my father for what he thought would be a final goodbye, I felt my backbone soften into a column of meringue.  What was before me could very well require more fortitude than a lifetime supply.

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My dad can be a harmless bovine, skipping through life with great charm and a convincing dose of masculinity.

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Or one of his other characters can hit the stage and suddenly the comedy turns tragic, or  childish and petulant.  One can never be sure.   The only thing about him that’s flexible is his mood.  And his idea of humor is only funny if one is cruel and unusual.

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Barking orders, Dad commanded me to dial a phone number for him.  The recipient, Mick, is an old friend in his late eighties and in a home for Alzheimer’s patients.  When the front desk asked who was calling, my dad said, ‘His father.”  With his old man voice and New York accent it sounded like he said ‘his farther.’  Confused already, Mick had the switchboard  operator ask again who was calling and Dad said, “Tell him it’s his father!” Then to me he said, “Jeeze, these people, Steph.”

For fifteen minutes, he attempted to converse with Mick.  As they talked,  Dad covered the speaker with the receiver in his lap, shaking his head.  “Steph, this is so sad,” Dad said.  “He’s in really bad shape and  doesn’t know who I am.”

“Just tell him your name, Dad,” I said.

“Mick, it’s Arnold,” Dad said into the phone.  Dad’s name is Sol: Sol Urdang. In all honesty, he and Mick called each other Arnold for years.  But from Dad’s end of the conversation, it didn’t sound like Mick ever comprehended who he was talking to.

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My Dad’s health is failing but his mind is as sharp as ever.  He despises being old because it doesn’t fit into a lifelong model of physical vanity.  Where I like to think I will age with grace, his approach waivers between rage and utter despair.

Everywhere I looked during this trip to Kansas City, towers were in my view.  Like the lyrics of a long ago song playing over and over in my head, noticing towers in a town not known for them spoke to me.  As old and sick as my dad is, he’s still standing tall, if not strong, in  his idea of what it means to be a man.  On Junes 21st, he will hit ninety, and the only thing I know for sure is, I can’t imagine what that’s like.

Ol’ Fuzzhead

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In the fall, my eighty-nine year old father ended up in a rehab center in Kansas City with another cardiac issue.  There was only so much normalcy that one could bring into that room.  So I did my version of what our family is known to do in tough times: get in the car.

But there was no way to lift him safely into any vehicle by myself because as frail as he is, he is still very dense.  Instead, I put a jacket on him and rolled him in his wheelchair through the door of his room, down the hallway, past nurses, doctors and other ‘inmates,’ into the elevator, down another long series of hallways, right by the front desk, and out the sliding doors.

Hitting fresh air like we’d just dug through a mile long tunnel, we quickly crossed the parking lot into the vast acreage of the surrounding hills.  Going up, I pushed with every ounce of strength I had, arms stretched way out and body at a total slant.  “Steph, you’re panting down my neck,” Dad said.  “I hope you don’t die of a heart attack doing this.”  Downhill was even more labor intensive.  Keeping him in his chair and a good grip on them both involved more strength than my life normally requires.

Twice we made variations of the same rounds, but the third day I decided to cross Nall Road, a six lane major thoroughfare.  From there we went into an upscale neighborhood.  As I pushed, we talked, more than usual.  We talked because we weren’t face to face and it was easier to communicate through the grief that hung between us like a wet wool blanket.

“I miss Gretchen, Steph.  Do you ever think about her?” Dad said.

“Every day, Dad.  I miss her too.”  Gretchen, my youngest sister, died eight years ago in a fire.  Even from behind him, I could tell Dad was softly crying.

“Getting old is not for sissies,” he said for the hundredth time.  “But that’s life.”

“Yeah, I guess so.  What else can you do?”  I could feel my heart breaking in two.

By then we had reached a small man-made lake.  When we came to a little footbridge, I nearly dumped him in the gap between the sidewalk and the wood planks.  Halfway onto the bridge I thought to myself, I need to document this one.

“I’m going to take your picture, okay?” I said, stopping.

“Make sure I look good.”

“It’ll be from the back, Dad.  Your face won’t even show.”

“Okay, but take one from the front too and be sure you get my good side and don’t make me look toothless.”

I took the two photos under his direction.

“Ol’ Fuzzhead,” he said when he looked at them on my camera, images his eyes could barely see.

“Yeah, Ol’ Fuzzhead halfway there,” I said, through a sheet of blinding tears.

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