My Escape from Slavery
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My family moved onto the car lot when I was in seventh grade. My father had been in the used car business for only about five years. As an adult my father had switched jobs more often than most middle class parents are accustomed. Before taking on the title of a car salesman, he had held a well-paying state department position in which he trained the unemployed so they could find work. However, he claims that by the end his job had become more about paper work and less about people. You see, my dad is a businessman, or at least prides himself as one. People are his game. He saw the car business as the perfect profession to utilize his gifts that were so shamefully being wasted at his old job.
Those first years of his being a car salesman, however, I almost never saw my dad. I would get up and be off to school before he awoke, and I would be asleep or at least in bed before he was able to drag his exhausted and overworked body in the front door and collapse in the bed. Often he would be unable to eat dinner until he slept for a couple hours. I can still remember a few times seeing him sitting on the couch at 2 o'clock in the morning in his pajamas eating cottage cheese and peaches and watching Headline News.
Needless to say, my father grew tired of living such an existence. Sure, he was supporting his family, but I'm certain he felt horrible about his lack of time with his children. This case is of course what led to my father's suggestion that we move into the building next to his office on the lot. This "house" was actually just another office building with a kitchen. Furthermore this car lot had been erected in the same location as all the other dealerships in our community: downtown.
I'm not talking about the quaint, romanticized downtown that every town seems to have, which has one street, usually called Main, and numerous rustic looking buildings, which used to be stores and shops when the town started out but are all attorneys' offices now. My dad's car lot did not exist in this setting. Rather, my new house was to lie far beyond Mains Street in the run down industrial area of town.
Initially, I jumped at the proposal to move despite wherever the house might be located. Just as my father had been missing time with his family, I had begun to miss him. Before the move I can remember several nights anxiously awaiting his arrival from work. He was always out away from the office on these nights, dealing with some customer, so it was impossible to get in touch with him. I actually would go outside to wait for him. I would restlessly walk up and down the concrete pathway leading to the street, wondering where he could be and hoping to see the headlights of his Subaru soon. Some of those nights were pretty chilly, but I didn't care. I was scared for my dad's safety and childishly reasoned that being outside would hasten his arrival. For one thing, his customers would never be mistaken for respectable. My young imagination didn't have a hard time envisioning my dad in a deadly confrontation with an irate drunk. Another regular occurring fear was that my dad, overworked and unhealthy, would suffer a sudden heart attack while driving home. These fears may seem irrational, but they were more than enough to encourage my consent to moving. After all, then I would be right next door to him.
However, this proximity bred more than just the release of worry that I had expected.
I have already mentioned that my dad thinks he's a businessman. I say thinks not because my father is poor at selling. He is in no way a Willy Loman; he is actually rather skilled at selling cars. But the reason he is so good is that he works so well with people. He seems to have a natural love of other people, and everyone senses it. I even used to be insanely jealous of his ability to be totally comfortable and confident with a stranger. Yet, it baffles me why he feels that in order to employ this love for people he must sell them a 1984 Buick Skylark
My assumption is that my father at some point fell in love with the idea of being a businessman. The stereotypical American Dream. What made it worse was that he was so damn good at it.
The first couple months at the car lot weren't that bad. It was dangerous, noisy and dirty. I never did get used to the huge trains hurtling outside my bedroom window every two hours as the metallic thunder nearly drove me deaf. It was also startling to open the front door every morning, expecting to find millions of blades of grass wintergreen with dew, only to be hit with the overabundant gleam from innumerable glass and chrome fixtures. However, I had expected these minor inconveniences in the first place and had dubbed them sufferable.
The one thing that I had not fathomed was that my father would expect me to take part in his business. Yet it became increasingly clear that he wished, was determined for me to play a vital role at the car lot. I'm not going to argue that he wanted me to live his dream, too, but he did want to teach me a few life lessons in work and responsibility as he saw them. From the very beginning I fought his desires in vain. I didn't mind helping out a little. After all, the money he made was going to support me for the most part. But I was not prepared to work alongside my father in anything like the capacity that he expected. I simply did not harbor any affection for sales industry as my dad did.
It started with his asking me to wash his cars. Again, I did not mind helping out. I didn't even care when he failed to pay me for my services even though he had claimed he would. I envisioned it as something that I could do every week or so to help my dad out. Imagine my surprise when my dad informed that I would not only wash every contrapted collection of metal on the lot every other day but I would also perform other duties on those days between all summer long. This request is where I balked. I was not about to give up my entire summer to join his world. The car lot had run for years without me, and as far as I was concerned could continue. I had moved to spend more time with him, not to lower his overhead by bumping a few names off the payroll. From his point of view my dad merely thought that I was lazy and became determined to enforcing his paternal commands.
I tried everything I could to get a pardon from what I saw as an extreme waste of youth. I tried to plan other things, and I tried to do the work poorly to discourage him. However, my dad refused to give in to his "brat" of a son trying to subvert his authority, and often threatened me with physical violence. This threat was not really unusual because he had made it a practice of spanking me when I was a child as a means of discipline. But it was a little odd and frightening that he saw it appropriate to resort to the same tactics after so many years.
After a while he stopped the threats and carried through with actions. One day my father had put me to work at cleaning out our breezeway, which serves as the lot's garage really only without a roof. It was ferociously hot, and I was getting tired of rummaging through dirty stacked tires and dead batteries. My dad eventually walked out of his office to look at my progress.
"Let's go, son. You're not leaving this job until it's done," he said. The job was actually enough for ten people.
"Dad, it would take weeks to sort through all this crap." I was pretty upset and didn't especially care if he knew it.
"Hey! Watch your mouth with me. I won't have no smart-mouthed boy in my house." He spanked me, the first time in years, with a rolled up newspaper. I started to cry. It's hard to say why. It didn't hurt that badly, and I know that I was too old to react so childishly. But I was tired and frustrated with everything at this point, and the pain was exiting the path of least resistance through suppressed sniffles and welling tears. He saw my face and got mad. For as long as I can remember, it has always made my father angry when I cried. "Stop that crying! Dry up now!"
To this day I still don't know why, but I pulled back my hand like I was about to hit him. I knew then and know now that I really would not have hit him for anything. It was just a reflex. Of course it only served to enrage him more.
"You better watch yourself," he said. "You might have to pick yourself up off the floor."
The whole situation had gone too far over what seemed to me as petty pride and frustration. I just turned back around to my work and said, "Yes, sir."
So I got a job as soon as I turned 16 for two reasons. First, it would prove to my dad that I really wasn't lazy, and even if that didn't work, I would no longer have to work for him. Since I was working full time, there was really no way he could expect me to work for him, too. Such was my delusion.
About 7 o'clock one morning during my first week at my new job, my dad woke me up with a spray bottle as is his custom. He said, "Come on. Get up. I need you to take the trash out of the office and pick up cigarette butts before you go to work."
Picking up cigarette butts is the most disgusting things that I can imagine ever being asked to do. I had to walk around the lot with a plastic bag, hunched over hunting for the used cigarette butts littering up my dad's lot and picking them out of the gravel one by one. In addition, I would suffer the humiliation of doing this right in front of customers with their mocking eyes following my progress.
"Dad, I have to go to work in a couple of hours. Can't I sleep?" I asked still half asleep.
"No. This needs to be done today."
I just fell back against my pillow hoping he'd respect my exhaustion and give up. Suddenly, though, I found myself being yanked out of the bed.
"I said NOW!" he said. I landed on the cold hard floor, too tired to move and willing to sleep there if he would just go away.
"Dad, just let me go to sleep." I was beginning to plead now.
"That's it," he said. He literally dragged me into the living room. "Stand up," he commanded. I grudgingly complied, totally ignorant of what his plans were. He took off his belt and told me to touch my toes. I suddenly woke up and tried to protest.
"But, Dad." I'm not going to lie. I was scared at the moment.
"Touch your toes!" he said.
I reached down to my toes, trying not to feel ashamed. He began to swing the belt at my legs and issuing warnings about my future behavior. The tears came quick and abundant. I could feel the snot run from my nose as I kept trying to tell him that I only wanted to sleep. The lashings didn't hurt as much as the realization that my dad actually carried through with such behavior.
I, of course, ended up doing my dad's chores that morning. However, ever since then, he hasn't asked me to wash one car or pick up one butt. It's hard to say why he finally stopped asking me to work. Maybe he realized that it wasn't worth the effort. Maybe he was simply shamed by his actions to the point of foregoing the fight. Whatever his reasoning, he was at least decent enough to stop.
Even now, I still do not hate, or even dislike, my father because of those actions. Any pain or ill feelings that come from his actions with me on the car lot are eclipsed by my memories of those dark nights walking the concrete pathway of our old house awaiting his arrival. I no longer have to tread that walkway, and to me that means more than anything.