“I just want him to watch the truck,” my father said.
My mother looked up at the ceiling. Now that I knew where we were going, I was hoping she’d nix the whole thing. If she had said I couldn’t go, my father would not have tried to talk her out of it.
“Stop that!” my mother barked at Tina, who had a spaghetti noodle hanging down past her chin, slowly sucking it in. Then she pointed her finger at me. “You make sure you stay in the truck. Keep the windows closed and the doors locked. You understand?”
“Alfred?” she said to my father, not “Al,” meaning this was serious.
“Absolutely,” he said. Scout’s honor for her too.
* * *
My father had a 1954 Chevy panel truck with a stick shift on the floor and double doors in back. Two long scratches from a defective pair of wiper blades arched like eyebrows across the windshield. There was no radio, no air-conditioner and the speedometer didn’t work; the odometer, which had twice gone past the hundred-thousand-mile mark, was stuck, as if with some deep significance, on 47774. Rust had eaten a hole the size of a half-dollar in the floorboard on the passenger’s side. When I was a kid I couldn’t ride ten miles in the truck without throwing up. Dramamine, soda crackers, ginger ale – nothing seemed to work. Not even when my mother let me have the passenger seat up front, she and Patty and baby Tina camped out on a blanket on the floor in back, empty coat hangers tinkling like wind chimes on the clothes racks above them.
The exterior of the truck was dark blue with yellow hand-painted lettering on both side-panels that read:
Al Mroczkowski, Proprietor, Since 1946
WE CLEAN RUGS
In the days before rented steam vacuums came along and ruined the business, rugs were a dry cleaner’s brass ring. Suits and dresses, skirts and pants, these items paid the bills. Men’s shirts were a nuisance, hardly enough margin in them to break even. But rugs – like drapes, their vertical cousins – could make a slow week profitable. Rugs could make my father sing.
I was waiting on the front steps when my father picked me up on Saturday morning. First we drove to the dry cleaning plant on Brighton Road to get the deliveries for the day. The plant served a half dozen or more independent drivers like my father, men who owned their own trucks and paid the plant’s operator to clean and press the clothes they’d picked up from their customers. The plant was a low brick building that smelled of starch and wet wool and machine oil. My father and I went into the large room where the clean clothes were stored and carried them out to the truck. There were enough clothes to fill both racks plus two rugs.
As we were crossing the river, I said to my father, “Aren’t you scared when you go up to the Hill District?”
“Scared? Why would I be scared?”
“What if somebody pulls a gun on you? Or hides in a hallway and smashes you over the head with a tire iron?”
He glanced over at me. “You’ve been watching too much TV.”
“Dad, you’ve been robbed twice.”
“A few bad apples,” he said, flicking away my words away with a wave of his hand.
“Mom says you should try and get more business in Fox Chapel and Mount Lebanon. Nobody’s gonna break into your truck out there.”
“Fox Chapel, right,” my father sneered.
“What’s wrong with Fox Chapel?” Every year he drove the whole family out to the suburbs to look at the Christmas lights. There were brick mansions lit up like department stores, garages bigger than our whole house.
“Lemme tell you, Charlie, I’ve been going up to the Hill District for fifteen years. My colored customers, they make their living doing things like driving buses, loading boxcars and scrubbing floors. These people see me, they know I’m a working stiff, just like them.” He fished a cigarette out of his shirt pocket. “Hot day like today, I’ll have eight, ten different people offer me a cold drink.” His voice deepened and took on a Negro accent. “Hey there, fren’. Come on in ‘n take a load off. Give them dogs a rest.”
I laughed, hearing him talk like that. We stopped at a red light. He lit his cigarette and tossed the match out the window.
My father said, “When a poor man’s got money, Charlie, first thing he does is pay his bills. Rich people, they play by a different set of rules. You think they worry about paying the dry cleaner? Hell, they’ll run up a big tab – forty, fifty bucks – then when you go to collect, they give you a look like you’re trying to cheat them or something.”
He was getting all worked up, his face flushed, beads of sweat popping out on his bald head. He told me a story about a chiropractor’s wife from Fox Chapel who has stiffed him out of seventy-four dollars. One day my father showed up and the house was empty, the whole family gone.
“I asked around to see if I could track them down,” he said, “but nobody knew where they went. Turned out they left owing everybody. Plumber, maid, gardener, even the newspaper boy. Took us all to the cleaners.” He laughed at his own joke.