Another Last Word

Heart Like a Wheel


It was 1979 or ’80. My dad informed me I would accompany him to a business dinner. I put on my three-piece suit, like his, and he drove us in his 1968 Volvo P1800 bone-white coupe with red leather interior to a pre-war L.A. apartment building overlooking the Hollywood Bowl. The hostess served us martinis, yes including me at 16 or 17, in a classic California courtyard adorned with massive birds of paradise and lilies of the Nile, but the dominant scent was Chinese wisteria hanging from the terra-cotta roof tiles, with a hint of buttery baked garlic from her kitchen.

She served us a six course dinner while pitching a deal she wanted my dad’s input on. He was a distinguished tax attorney with a specialty in funding energy projects and she had some idea about solar, like that was going to be a thing.

I could describe the whole evening, from vichyssoise to frog legs to tax shelters, but the epiphany that night was sweetbreads. I’d never had, heard of, or imagined such a thing. Served in light cream with baby turnips and new potatoes. She knew it was one of my dad’s favorites, but he remained poker-faced.

It wasn’t until dessert, a spoon bread soufflé, that he cracked. “I am in your power,” he said, offering his expertise while silently glancing back across the lonely decades to his Kansas farm childhood in the ’30s, and the corn slush he so often ate. He described this feeling to me on the way home as we unwound our way through the Hollywood Hills late that night in the Volvo, but, of course, I couldn’t understand it until many lonely decades later.

In 1991 I was working at a boatyard in Ventura after having given up a short-lived career in publishing in New York City and trying to write my way around the world. It was a rest stop of sorts after those failures. I was 28 and without any prospects, staying at my parents’ house for a few months while they traveled, and I didn’t.

When they got home, Dad gave me the Volvo.

We didn’t have the best relationship, so this was quite startling. It took me years to understand that he spoke through action.

I took the Volvo and drove to Seattle, moved in with a friend who needed a roommate, and found a good job right away downtown.

Four days later, I was stopped at an intersection when a 19-year-old uninsured driver rear-ended me at 50 miles an hour, shoving me into cross traffic.

Every person in that accident was injured, except me. The Volvo was a solid steel capsule — totaled, of course — but I was the only person to walk away after firefighters pried my door open.

One can imagine how my parents felt, even parents who didn’t talk about things.

Now, of course, they are long gone, and so is that elegant woman who served me a martini and sweetbreads in the Hollywood Hills. Her deal worked out well for her and was just one of many she conjured and invited us to join. I became an understudy at her table when there was a cancellation, and was grateful for the invitations. She told me so many secrets. Not about business or people but about life.

Out of nowhere a young associate who’d seen a photo in my office of Dad’s car recently brought to my attention something she thought I might like: A 1972 P1800 Volvo, ivory white, red vinyl interior, at a price I could manage.

I confess that even at 60 the overpowering desire of youth drove me to make a call for which I was wholly unprepared. The voice on the other end, however, was entirely prepared for me. The car’s owner knew my terrain well, for he had dwelled there himself. We talked for a long time.

Listening to him describe his car, which had been his father’s, and all the work he had done to it reminded me of all my dad had done to keep his car going for so long before he gave it to me out of nowhere. It was so terrible telling Dad what happened just a few days later. But if he cared, he never showed it. And then we had a similar conversation when he was diagnosed with bilateral lung cancer in 2003. He was dead three months later.

I couldn’t buy the guy’s car.

Almost all of me wanted to, except the part which told me you can’t fix a broken heart. I didn’t think I knew that, but I remembered a secret the elegant woman told me, 20 years ago now. We shared a bottle of bourbon the night after my dad died, not in that apartment courtyard but on the terrace of her mansion perched on a cliff above the Pacific. Grief isn’t like some wild animal at the edge of the firelight you think you can scare away, she said. Let it in, sweetheart, because it’s not going anywhere.

Ted Olinger lives in Vaughn.