Shifting Gears

February 26, 2015 at 9:19 pm


“Treat her like the love of your life and she’ll never let you down.”


written by Debbie Allen

His fingers laced tightly behind his head, Randy Crandall shifted uncomfortably, laying on the backseat of his candy-apple red , 1967  classic, Chevelle.  Running his hand along the frayed seams of its once, immaculate black, leather seats, a myriad of thoughts clouded his thinking.  In earlier years, he remembered helping his Grandfather customize this car from the ground up.  Every inch of it.  As a teenager, they had both worked side by side in his Grandpa’s barn to restore it.  The barn doubled on the weekends as a machine shop for rebuilding classics like the one Randy now laid in. “But, that was so very…long…ago.”  Randy whispered, finding himself now a prisoner of both exhaustion and disgust.

Not too much made him smile these days, but, the corners of his lips still managed to curl whenever he thought of his Grandfather’s words to him on his sixteenth birthday; now almost a half a lifetime ago .

“Randy, my boy…one day, this car will take you for a ride in life;  one I promise you’ll never forget!” Grandpa said, the day he handed the keys over to him.

“Treat her like the love of your  life and she’ll never let you down,” he’d added, wrapping his sausage-like mechanic’s fingers around Grandma Smith’s ivory hands.

Randy could still remember the pride radiating from both of their faces that day as they watched him climb into the Chevelle.  Yes, his sixteenth birthday  served as a mile-marker in their own lives, too.  After all, Grandma and Grandpa Smith raised him like their only son after his parents died in a car accident before Randy even took his first step.  Though he remembered little about his parents, Grandpa Smith’s words still spilled daily into every crevice of his mind.  Tonight , as he stared at the blackness of night descending on him through the rear view window of the Chevelle, his Grandpa’s words remained the only glue still holding his fractured thoughts together.  Even so,  he felt strangely relieved that his Grandpa had not lived to see the mess he’s made of his life.

Emptiness now plagued his heart.  Every day spoke of uncertainty and apprehension.  As the moral fabric of his life continued unraveling, a sort of self-inflicted hollowness of soul continually drove him away from any thread of common sense left running through him.  He’d settled time after time in his life for what Grandpa Smith, the son of a fiery Baptist preacher, deemed, “…the devil’s playground;  wine, women, and song.”

Though most people these days balked at such prudish thinking, he’d seen and felt the riveting effects and painful realities of denying such a simple truth.

“Maybe, the simpler the truth…the more severe is Life’s lesson.” he concluded with a sigh.

“Swimming in a pool of boiling water woulda’ probably been easier…”  Randy mumbled, “…especially for a married man.”

After losing his entire inheritance, both his Grandpa’s farm and then the machine shop, in a fool-hearted gambling bet earlier in the year; the only roof left over his head was the Chevelle.

Staring up now through it’s rear-view window, Randy tried losing himself in the myriad of stars studding the nighttime sky, stretched over the little farming community of Newborough, Oklahoma.  His eyes froze when they came to rest on one particular constellation. Silently he traced its outline, muttering softly as he landed on each star.

“A stupid gambling bet…a wife that left me for what she called a ‘normal’ life…no way to make a living anymore…and every day I wonder if this will be the day my four-year-old daughter figures out that the hero she calls, Daddy, is just the schmuck who can’t take care of her anymore.And there you have it, Grandpa,” Randy continued, wandering down his own halls of regret.

“Your favorite constellation, the Big Dipper. Only not the one in the sky.  I mean the one laying here in the back seat of this car.  I guess your word for me now would probably be, “Just a promise gone sour!”

“That’s what you always said when the engine in one of those cars we worked on didn’t run quite the way you thought it should.  Oh man! So-o-o-o much has changed in this last year, Grandpa.  So very, very much.” Randy whispered with a deep sigh.

With the sudden movement of his chest rising, a little pile of tousled, brown hair lying next to him stirred.

“Daddy…Daddy, I’m cold,” a sleepy little voice uttered softly.

“Ok, Brandy.  Daddy’ll turn the car on for a little bit.  But, not too long.  Besides, being cold is just part of the fun of camping, Sweetie.” he tried to convince her, bending to kiss her forehead.

“Try to think of something fun…something you really  love to do.  That’ll help take your mind off of your goose bumps,” he suggested, reaching over the front seat to turn the key in the ignition.

“I’m too tired, Daddy,” she whined through chattering teeth.

“Ok.  Well, let me help you out.  How about…the mud cookies we made today down by the stream; didn’t we have fun baking them on a rock in the sunshine?”  he offered, flipping the heater switch on.

That’s when he noticed the gas gauge reflecting  in the moonlight.  It was registering almost empty.

“Not now,” he thought to himself, feeling for any loose change hiding in the corners of his jean pockets.  Nothing.  Both pockets registered empty too.

“Daddy, I don’t want to camp anymore.  I want to go home now,” she said, yawning and squeezing her dolly, Annabelle, a little tighter.

“Brandy, we don’t have anywhere else to…I mean, it’s just that,,,we have to camp out for a little while longer.” he said, beginning to sense her misery.

“Annabelle says she doesn’t like camping anymore either.”  Brandy added firmly, pulling the doll away from her ear as if she’d finished speaking.

“Do you remember me telling you that only big girls get to go camping?”

“Yes, Daddy,”  Brandy responded, looking down in an effort to dodge his frown.

“Aren’t you and Annabelle Daddy’s big girls anymore?” he answered, tucking her back in under one of the extra flannel shirts he pulled out of a paper bag on the floor.

“I am, Daddy…but, just a minute,” Brandy said, holding Annabelle up to her ear again.  Reluctantly, she put the doll back down at her side.

“I’m afraid it’s not good news, Daddy.” she said, shaking her head in a very serious, grown-up way.

“No?  Well…it  won’t be the first time this year, honey.  Hit me with  it anyway.  What is it?”

“Annabelle says she’s as big as she can ever get…and…she’ll never be big enough to have room inside of her for camping again!  Never…ever…EVER!”  Brandy replied, a little fearful of what her Daddy might do to Annabelle.

Hearing Annabelle’s harsh words set into motion a battery of already swirling emotions inside of him.

“Annabelle’s right, Brandy.  Annabelle’s so-o-o-o right.”  He answered her back, suddenly expressionless and monotone in voice.

Though only the words of a little rag doll, they shredded the last scrap of fatherly pride remaining in his heart.

“You and Annabelle stay in the car.” he demanded, lunging forward to turn the  engine back off.  Then he climbed out the side door.

“Daddy, wha…what are you doing?”  Brandy cried out after him, fretting as she watched  the darkness swallow  up her Daddy as he walked through a grove of oak trees and into a field running parallel to the car.

Randy could hear the desperation in her voice but, the weight of his own thoughts drove him forward.  Each stride carried him with greater purpose, towards an old tractor sitting idle in the middle of the field where he’d parked the Chevelle all summer long.

“Come to papa,” Randy spoke aloud, spying the tractor in the moonlight.

Mounting the old Ford beast, he pulled a three foot rubber hose from under the tractor seat.  Then, reaching over the steering wheel, he unscrewed a gas cap protruding from the engine casing.  He’d done it many times over the last summer but, somehow it just felt wrong tonight.  Almost  like someone was watching his every move.  A quick glance around the moonlit field revealed nothing and no one.  Ignoring his prodding conscience, he went on speaking in his usual coaxing manner.

“Come on…you’ve been faithful to me all summer long.  Just one more time  old girl…one more time.”

Then slipping one end of  a siphoning hose into the tank, and the other between his lips, he took a deep breath, drawing the precious liquid to the top of the hose.

“Yech-h-h-h!”  he hollered, gas forcing it’s way across his pursed lips.  Wiping his mouth, he watched with relief as the liquid began draining into  a plastic milk jug.  Short lived, however, the flow dwindled to a drip after making only a scant two inch deposit.

“I can’t believe it.!  I must be cursed when it comes to all the ladies in my life!  I thought you’d be different, old girl…I really did.”  he commented, still fuming and shaking his head as he trudged back to the car.

Frustrations only mounted when he heard a still-sobbing Brandy, now all scrunched up in a little ball against the rear window, clinging ever-so-tightly to Annabelle.  Seeing the ram shackled appearance of his prize-winning Classic in the moonlight only further ignited his already angry outlook on life.  For the second time tonight, Randy found himself unscrewing a gas cap.  This time his own.  When he’d drained what he could from the milk  bottle, he flung it aside.

“Maybe it’ll be enough to at least get me into town,” he thought, his brow now creased with the weight of the decisions he’d soon be making.

As he climbed back into the car, Brandy’s frantic cries subsided into more of a manageable sobbing.

“Da…Da…ddy?  My tummy hurts,” she said, half afraid to speak again.

“My tummy hurts, too, Brandy, but Daddy’s about to take care of it.  Tell Annabelle that camping is done.”

Starting up the engine, he revved it once and then tore off, whipping a u-turn and spitting gravel for several feet behind him.

“Whe…where are we go…going, Daddy?” Brandy asked, crouching down on the back seat floor with Annabelle.

She raised her index finger up and laid it gently on puckered lips.  “Sh-h-h-h!”  she whispered to Annabelle, “Daddy’s thinking.”

Fresh tears began to trickle down her cheeks once more.

“I…I’m  ‘fraid, Daddy.”

Silence was not  the answer she expected but, she settled for it anyway, trying with great difficulty to stay anchored in her spot.  After an endless amount of time swerving and shimmying down a dusty, country road, Randy came to a screeching halt in front of the only convenience store in the town of Newborough.  Dead silence reigned until  he felt Brandy peeking up over the back seat at him.  In one fluid motion, he slipped his hand inside his jacket pocket in order to conceal the contents he seized from inside the glove box.

“You and Annabelle stay in the car!”  he stated firmly.

“I’m hungry, Daddy.  Could you pl-e-a-s-e get me a can…” she managed to speak before he locked her and Annabelle in the car again.  By the time Brandy found the window crank, Randy already stepped through the store’s front door, both hands buried in his jean pockets.

“Howdy, young fella,” an old man standing behind the register spoke to him.

“Hey.”  Randy answered him , forcing a smile and nodding.

“Help you find something?” the clerk offered, running his steely blues over Randy.

Randy ambled toward the man, trying to think of something…anything to say that might sound legitimate coming from the gaunt, rumple-haired man he’d become over the summer.  Sporting a ten-o-clock shadow on his jawline and wandering the isles of a convenience store at four a.m. in the middle of nowhere; he doubted that he himself would even have trusted him.

“I…uh…my daughter an’ I are doin’ some traveling these days.  You know how kids are.  Get hungry at the most inconvenient  times,” he explained, continuing up another isle.

“Yep, I know whatcha mean. My wife and I raised a boy of our own.  Seems like yesterday to me. Boy…they grow up fast.  Why I can remember…” the clerk tried to share, before Randy interrupted him in mid-sentence.

“You got any bathrooms in this place?”  Randy spit out.

“Sure do…on your left, far back corner.”

“Thanks.”  Randy managed, before making a bee-line for the restroom door.

Trivial conversation didn’t interest him right now.  Once behind a closed door, Randy reached for the lock and dropped to his knees.  Raising a sweaty palm, he mopped his brow, now drenched with  the untimely  beads of sweat he’d managed to control up until now.

“God, please …if my Grandpa’s standin’ anywhere near You, well…just cover up his eyes…and forgive me for what I’m about to do.”  he uttered, pulling himself back up on shaky legs.  Taking a deep breath, he flung the door wide open and made his way back up to the register.

“You o.k. young fella?  You don’t look so good.  Doggone flu’s goin’ around you know.  Antacids located just behind you there,” the clerk said, looking back down at his paperwork.

Randy shifted back and forth on his feet a couple of times in hesitation, before grabbing the .32 caliber pistol lodged in his jacket pocket.

“Antacids aren’t exactly the solution to my  problems.  Just give me all the greenbacks in that register…that oughta’ do it!”  Randy yelled.  “NOW!”  he emphasized.

“Whoa, young fells’…I don’t want any trouble. Now…just take it easy.  Think what yer doin’ here.”

Though a bit rattled, the old man spoke with a strange calmness in his voice.

“I’ve thought long and hard about a lot of things lately, and I DO know what I need tonight…money!” Randy shouted, throwing a crumpled brown paper bag on the counter.
“In there…put it all in there!”

His darting eyes unexpectedly found themselves in a dead-lock with the old man’s steely blues.  Mopping his brow again, he shifted back and forth on his feet nervously.

This guy was lookin’ at him like he’d seen him before.  Randy wrestled for a moment inside his adrenaline-drenched brain.   How could anyone possibly know him in this town or visa versa?  He’d been hiding in a grove at the edge of a wheat field all summer long, he reasoned in silence.  Blinking a couple of times to regain his focus, he squeezed on the trigger a little harder.

“Don’t make me do this, old man…I will, I swear I will!” he threatened.

Seeing Randy’s hands trembling, the old man decided to take him serious and popped the register drawer open.

“The name is Mel,”  the old man offered, still composed.

“What!  Are you crazy or somthin’?”  “What kind of person stops to introduce himself in the middle of a robbery anyway?”

“In answer to your question, I guess it’s this old man standing in front of you.The one who doesn’t deserve what’s happening to him right now.  I guess that makes me a lot like you, huh?”  Mel told him, slowly loading a fistful of cash into the brown paper bag.

“Like me?  You don’t know nuthin’ about me, mister!”  Randy argued, taking a step closer to him.

“Well…I know that for pretty near the whole summer, I’ve been watching a sly , two-legged fox raid a poor widow’s chicken house every morning before the sun comes up.  Stolen eggs…miss’in chickens.  You ever seen a two-legged fox, son?”  he added, slipping a rubber band around a wad of twenties.

Randy’s brow buckled for a moment, his heart palpitating to the tune of this man’s words.

“Anyway…this poor widow’s been throwing her money to the wind trying to keep her old tractor’s guzzlin’ gas tank filled this summer.  Can’t figure out where all the gas is goin’.  No hole…no gas…no leak.  Just doesn’t add up, but, she just keeps fillin’ it up anyway.  How’s your math when it comes to figurin’ out Ford tractors and bottomless gas tanks, son?”  Mel continued without blinking an eye or changing his expression.

Randy plowed a set of trembling fingers through his hair.  Right now, he felt more like the one under the gun than the one holding the gun.  He watched as the old man shut the register drawer and folded the top if the brown paper bag; creasing each fold meticulously.

“There you go, son,” Mel said in a tone as natural as a mother who  just finished packing a school lunch.  Then he pushed the bag across the counter toward Randy.

Randy eyed the bag…and then Mel.  “I gotta ask ya, what’s the catch, old man?

No catch, son.  It’s more of a cross-road from where I’m standing.  Let me just remind you of something.  It’s a l9t easier to stay out of trouble than it is to get out of trouble. But…it’s your move.  And right now you’re standin’ between two futures.  Your’s and your little girl’s,”  Mel finished.

This strange old man’s words continued to pierce his heart like little bullets. Bullets aimed square at the core of his being.  Still captured by the intensity of his gaze, Randy stood glued to the floor.  Gripping his gun even tighter, nothing could have prepared him for what happened next.

“Just gimme all your candy, mister!” demanded a little voice from behind him.

“Brandy?”  Randy cried out, shocked to find her inside the store.

He turned around to see her straddling the floor behind him, clad in little pink cowgirl boots on the wrong feet, and a dirty jean jacket.  Worst of all, she was pointing a toy gun in the old man’s direction!

“Do what my Daddy says!” she said, with a sheepish grin on her face.  Traumatized by this whole unforeseen moment, panic surfaced.  Randy’s whole world shifted into slow motion.  Every poor choice he’d ever made flashed now inside his head like little grenades exploding, one right after another.  The life-altering consequences of his gambling escapades…the trauma labeling every drunken stupor…every moment of unfaithfulness spent with forbidden, ladies of the night.  And worst of all, in his mind’s eye, each of these ladies now wore his daughter’s face!  Until now, he hadn’t given much thought to  the little feet that might be following in his footsteps.  Mopping his sweat-drenched brow again, Randy caught a glimpse of Annabelle, now shoved down inside of the plastic holster strapped around Brandy’s pint-sized hips.

“No, God…please no!”  Randy cried out in silent anguish, at the sight of his daughter having exchanged her dolly for a gun.

Guilt-ridden at the sight of her, he thought of the multiple times he, too, traded away the things he loved for selfish, ill-gotten gains…and always at the expense of others.  In many ways that holster stuffed with Annabelle was just a vivid reflection of his own walk in life.  He couldn’t allow Brandy to become the collateral damage for another one of his poor choices along the way.  She was all he had left.

“Brandy, no!”  he spoke gently, releasing his trigger finger and tucking his gun back inside his jacket.

Watching his every move, Brandy hesitated and then decided to do the same.  Much relieved, Randy dropped down on one knee, cradling her pink cheek with the same hand that gripped a gun only seconds earlier.

Maybe it wasn’t too late to make a difference in her life, he reasoned.Though  no words would come to him, tears finally did.  Some found their way down onto Brandy’s head, tucked ever-so-tightly now under the crevice of his chin.  He held her so close he could feel her little heart beating next to his.

Wriggling one hand free from his embrace, Brandy reached up to wipe his tears from her hair.  “It’s the raindrops, Daddy,” she shrieked with delight.

“What do you mean, Sweetie?” he said sniffing.

“Silly Daddy…”Brandy offered, her tiny face contorted at his apparent ignorance on the matter.  “The raindrops that the angel promised me always fall right before the sun comes out.”

“Huh?  What angel?” he said, puzzled.

“You know, Daddy…Mel!” she answered with one hand on her hip now.

Randy whipped his head around to find the check stand empty and Mel nowhere in sight.  The register drawer remained open, completely full of cash again.  Not wanting any more trouble, he reached over the counter and pushed it closed.  But, the brown bag filled with cash moments earlier, still sat in front of him.  Right where Mel left it.

“Open it, Daddy,,,just open it!”  Brandy said, jumping up and down.

“I don’t know, Brandy.”  Randy whispered, taking a deep breath and surveying the store again for the old man.  He fully expected this to be some sort of trap where the minute his hand touched the bag, the police would bust in on him and drag him off to jail for attempted robbery.

“Come on, Daddy!  Annabelle says to open it!”  Brandy said, jumping up and down.

Frowning at the very thought of Annabelle’s influence in his life again, he unfolded the bag.  “Jawbreakers and lollipops?”  Randy asked, peering into the bag.

“Mmmm-m-m-m.  Lollipops are my favoritist!”  Brandy shouted.

“And I hardly remember being without a jaw breaker as a kid,” he said, unwrapping a lollipop for Brandy.

Then he pulled a piece of folded paper from the bag.  “It’s a note of some kind,” he said, reading it silently:

Two Sweet Truths…  She’ll take you for a ride in life…one I promise you’ll never forget!  Treat her like the love of your life…and she’ll never let you down! 

Randy’s eyes blurred with tears again as he read the words.  He recognized them to be his Grandpa’s words.  But, today had given them a whole new meaning.  His pulse raced as he eyed te signature scrawled across the bottom of the paper.  It was signed simply…G.M.

“Grandpa Mel…”  he whispered, remembering it as his nickname for his Grandpa when he was a little boy.

Though Randy never fully understood what took place inside that remote convenience store that night, he never questioned it either.  He just picked Brandy up in his arms and stepped outside feeling like he’d been let out from behind prison walls.  Gulping in the crisp air, the numbness he harbored deep inside of him for so long seemed to crumble away from his heart.  The nothingness of this world that consumed him for so long now paled in the beauty of dawn’s early light.  Though not one circumstance in his life had changed, his whole world somehow shifted.

A summer’s worth of cold, dark nights coupled with the untimely suggestions of a little rag doll steered him down one of the most difficult stretches of road a man ever encounters.  The 18-inch dirt road that stretches between a man’s head and his heart.  Guts wrenching and gears grinding all the way, he’d miraculously shifted from doing the unthinkable…to being challenged by the unbelievable; to experiencing the undeniable, to discovering the unimaginable:  There is a Love that runs much, much deeper than any pit he could ever dig for himself in this world.

As he climbed back into the Chevelle, he slid Brandy close to him and placed her dimpled hand on top of the gear shift knob.

Putting his own hand over hers, he made her a promise.

“Brandy…starting today, Daddy wants you right beside him…always.  And wherever the road takes us, there’ll be no more backseats for you.”

“Yippee!  Brandy squealed, too young to grasp the depth of his words.

Randy felt her little hand squirming beneath his.  As he pulled away from the convenience store, he realized that he was holding much more than just her hand; he was also holding onto her heart.

“Wheeeeee!”  Brandy shrieked , each time the gear shift engaged into another gear.  The sound of her giggles echoed in his soul for miles down the road.  They were the sounds of pure and simple joy.  Sounds that for the remainder of her childhood would become for him as a father, the bitter-sweet reminders of all the moments like them he’d forfeited while camped out on the fringes of his own selfish reality.  Randy’s life had always been a lot bigger than he’d ever allowed it to be.  He just never knew it until now.

As Randy glanced down at Brandy, he caught sight of a soiled and wrinkled Annabelle flopped across her lap.  He couldn’t help but grin.  Yes…even Annabelle brought a smile to his face today.  She, too, had played her own role in helping him to realize that the truest riches in a man’s life come from his soul…not from his wallet.  He now understood with his heart what his Grandpa must have known all along:

Life was meant to be a continual feast…too often we just settle for dirt cookies.