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sludgo’s Mile Markers: Mile 119
Joey held the back door open for his Dad then helped him down the stairs into the garage. It was a slow and painful journey for the old man, each step accompanied by an agonizing groan and a raspy wheeze. At the bottom of the staircase Joey took him by the arm and walked him over to the passenger side of the Mustang, opened the door, then eased him gingerly down into the little white bucket seat. Told him to buckle up but Tony jutted out his jaw defiantly and said he wouldn’t. That he didn’t believe in seatbelts anymore. That he’d seen a show on television about people who’d run off roads into lakes and rivers and streams and weren’t able to get out because their seatbelts jammed so they drowned and he never wanted that kind of thing to happen to him. Joey paused. Smiled a patient smile. Promised he wouldn’t drive near any known bodies of water on their way to the A&W, then grabbed the seatbelt and buckled Tony in, lickety-split. Gave him a wink. Got a nasty stinkeye in return. Sigh. Thanks, Pop.
Joey was only a couple months old that hot June Saturday in 1966 when Tony and Melissa first brought the Mustang home to their tidy new pink three-bedroom-two-bath rancher on the west side of town. The young family was on a roll back then with Tony enjoying his recent promotion at the plant and the raise that came with it, and Melissa happy and content as a stay-at-home mom caring for her bouncing baby boy. Life was good, except that the old ’54 Fairlane four-door they’d gotten as a hand-me-down wedding present from Melissa’s parents was on its way out, nickel-and-diming them to death with wear-and-tear repairs, and it was clear a new car was on the horizon.
So on that hot June Saturday in 1966 they’d dropped Joey off at his grandparents and hit the new Ford dealership out by the mall and Melissa saw a tan Galaxie 500 sedan that she liked but she also saw that Tony had made a beeline over to the snazzy blue Mustang perched on the turntable in the center of the floor. She watched him there for a moment, standing by the cute little ‘Stang in reverential silence, awestruck as it seductively rotated just an arm’s length away, shamelessly tempting him with its sporty lines and racy wheels and vinyl top and shiny chrome, and then she smiled. Shook her head. Boys.
As the years passed other cars came and went for Tony and Melissa, but the Mustang stayed. Tony used it as his daily, driving it back and forth to the plant and across the country on vacations with Melissa and Joey, and by the time he’d retired in ’95 the ‘Stang was pretty ratty so he took out a wad of his pension cash and started planning the restoration. Found a high-priced wrench who specialized in old Fords. A paint shop that knew how to fix rust and guaranteed an original color match. And then, on the very evening he’d signed on with a custom upholsterer to redo the interior, he’d felt that lump under his left arm. That damned lump.
In the months that followed, Joey and Melissa were glad the Mustang was still around. Kept Tony busy. Occupied. Hopeful. He’d soldier through the surgeries and the chemo and the radiation and whatever else the doctors threw at him just so he could keep tabs on the progress of the ‘Stang. And on the day it was done, when it looked and ran exactly like it had when he drove it off that turntable so many years ago, Joey and Melissa saw him smile again. A real smile. A satisfied smile. A Tony smile.
Joey fired up the ‘Stang, pulled it out of the garage, and they headed down the block. He glanced over at Tony, still pouting about the seatbelt issue, and felt a wave of concern wash over him. A heaviness in his heart. And a simmering anger. Anger that Tony’s cancer was back. Again. For the third time in seven years. They’d found out earlier that day during a routine check-up. All the doctors and nurses and techs sat Joey and Melissa and Tony down in the icy-cold examination room and said that it was bad. Really bad. He had a few months at the most, but there was an option. A new treatment they could try. An experimental treatment that meant another surgery and more meds. Different meds. More check-ins too. And more tests. And if it was successful it could give him six months or more, maybe even a year. But there were no guarantees. Of course.
The room fell silent as Tony took a deep breath then leaned back in his chair and closed his eyes. He reached out for Melissa’s hand and found it reaching out for his. He gave it a gentle squeeze and that’s when she knew. There would be no more surgeries. Or more drugs. Or more tests or any more anything, really. He’d had enough. Was tired. Ready. Ready to go home. So she took him home. In the Mustang.
When they got to the A&W Tony had climbed out of his funk a bit. Joey had chirped the Mustang’s tires away from a stop sign and that got Tony chuckling about the time he’d scared the bejeezus out of Melissa back in ’72 by burning out at a stoplight after being challenged by some hippie in a beat-up yellow Z-28. It was the thousandth time Joey had heard the tale but he laughed as though it was the first. That primed the pump and Tony kept the ‘Stang stories coming. Like the time he used the Mustang to teach Joey how to drive stick and it needed a new clutch two weeks later. Or when he drove it to a convention clear out in Oregon and some young something came up and said she liked his car and passed him a card with her phone number. Or the night he took it out for a drive by the lake after Melissa lost Joey’s little sister, just to look at the stars and think.
A cute brunette carhop came out to take their order and Joey winced as he rolled down his window. Knew that Melissa would be upset because Tony wasn’t supposed to be eating any burgers. Or fried foods. Or having any sugary drinks. But when Tony ordered a Papaburger with a side of onion rings and a frosty mug of root beer, Joey didn’t say a word. Ordered the same and settled back into his seat. Savored those moments with his Pop like the last sips of a rare bottle of wine.
They got home late. Went on a run out on Highway 2 after dinner to see what the old girl would do then stopped in at Duke’s to yak with some of Tony’s old pals and have a nightcap. And when they finally rolled into the garage and Joey shut the ‘Stang down, Tony reached over and pulled the keys out of the ignition. Took Joey’s hand and dropped them into it.
“It’s yours now, Joseph. Never sell it.”
Joey swallowed hard. Nodded.
“I won’t. Ever. Thanks Pop.”
Then things got blurry for both of them.
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