I just bought a little red car, and the other day, at a stoplight, I looked down at my hand on the stick shift, and suddenly I was seven years old, sitting in the back of our little red Ford Escort, and Dad was taking us fishing.
My dad had a black mustache. He liked jeans and T-shirts, and he wore them until they fell apart. He kept a handkerchief in his pocket, for his nose, for our noses. He wore a heavy belt buckle he'd gotten from the Outdoor Writers Association of America. Every six months, he smoked a cheap cigar. He jogged, fifteen or twenty miles at a time. He stood six feet even, exactly as tall as I am now.
This one time I'm thinking of, Dad was driving us to the reservoir in Fort Ashby, W.Va. I loved watching him drive. It was like watching a honeybee work a flower. Barefoot, Dad worked the pedals and gears and even the push-button radio. Though Dad drove slow, he wasn't the slowest, because up ahead was a burgundy Chrysler LeBaron, rusting around its edges. Dad said, "Boys, we got ourselves a Ferd."
Ryan, a year younger than me, sat up, eyes bright. Jake, the oldest, clapped. "I really hope it's a Ferd," he said. We were suddenly taut. The world was boring dashes and dashes and dashes and then suddenly a dot, and this was a dot.
Dad was funny. Country boys from West Virginia were always "Bubba." Sometimes, when Dad called in our little league games to the newspaper, he'd find that the other team's coach had given only initials for first names. Dad gave these kids names like Sonny or Junior or Butch or, once, Gerhart. And slow drivers from Pennsylvania were "Ferds." Ferds were white-haired men whose wives had big hair that looked like artificial clouds. Ferds had plastic Jesuses glued to their dashboards.
All of us — Jake, Ryan, me — knew what was coming. Dad crept the Escort forward until the LeBaron was big in our windshield. With a single motion, he threw every dashboard lever all the way to the right: defrost, heat, fan, even the knobs on the radio. The blast of hot air on our faces, the blatant silliness of it, thrilled us. Then Dad dropped the Escort down to third and stomped on the gas. The little engine, which often broke and which Dad often cursed, for once roared as it was supposed to. "Dust mode!" he yelled.
He swung us out and into the other lane. We picked up speed. Our front bumper came level with the Ferd's back bumper. Dad shifted to fourth. We inched ahead. We were even with the Ferd. I stuck out my tongue at the driver. The Ferd looked at us and then turned back to the road. His face was red. Once past the Ferd, Dad eased us back into the right-hand lane. We slowed. He switched back all the levers and knobs. The engine went quiet, but we exploded.
"How did you like dust mode?" Dad asked us.
We liked it more than we could say.
We fished. We caught trout. Afterward, Dad took us the long way home, through Cumberland. At one point, I looked up and realized we hadn't moved in a long time. We sat, idling on old Virginia Avenue, near where Pap and Nanny and Aunt Sis lived. We were three or four cars back from a red light. Dad said it must be broken. It was hot inside the Escort, the air thick and smelling of man and boy and fish and mud and feet.
Somebody behind us honked. Dad craned his neck, looking at the light. Somebody honked again. Dad yanked on the parking brake handle and opened his door. "Don't let anyone touch those," he said to Jake, pointing at the pedals. We watched him, easy, loose, walk up to the first car. He leaned in to the driver's-side window. There was gesturing. Dad pointed to the light and then, finally, the other guy nodded. Dad jogged back and slid into the Escort. He put the car in gear and when the cars in front of us went through the red light, we followed.
"Light's broken," he said, his front teeth flashing in the sun. "Had to do something."
I saw that even red lights were changeable. Dad, because he was a dad, because he was our dad, could take a certain thing, a thing that was law, and bend it. Red lights were not law. They were only another thing. Dad, taking us down Virginia Avenue now, was smiling, and it meant: there are no worries, boys, because in this little red car that breaks down but which is ours, I am home and so are you, and with these pedals, with this stick shift, we'll be together, and with this little car, we can just go.
Seth Sawyers lives in Mount Vernon. He teaches writing classes at UMBC and has recently finished a memoir about growing up in the Maryland Appalachians in the 1980s. His e-mail is email@example.com. His father, Mike Sawyers, is outdoors editor of the Cumberland Times-News.