I washed my own car the other day. Actually, I only washed part of itthe part that is not really black any more. I have told myself it is unlikely that anyone will notice. More than likely, I have told myself, they will simply assume that 1996 was the year when every black Saturn came with a dull brown patch on the hood. I have told myself that, if I back into my parking space at the liquor store, and if I choose a spot that is at the far end of the lot, hardly anybody will have a chance to say anything. If I simply avoid the broad daylight from now until my five-year warranty package runs out, I figure I will be perfectly fine.
If I had ever been paid an allowance, none of this would have happened. I grew up hearing about other children who got allowances, sometimes as much as $2.50 a week. Their parents paid them cold, hard cash, simply for existing. They could arise on a perfectly average Tuesday morning, and their parents would say, “Here’s 25 cents, honey. Go and have a nice day.”
These were children who, early on, learned the basics of the free-enterprise system. I figured a child with an allowance could have no problem understanding his basic value as a human being. When he wanted a Coke or maybe an extra couple of Krystals, he could have them. If he was lucky enough, he could even pick out his own shoes. Having an allowance could make a 13-year-old the hub of an entire system of domestic commerce. He could understand that his allowance was his salary, what he got paid for leaving his underwear all over the bedroom and spending too much time in the bathroom.
If his parents wanted anything extra, if they dared to suggest that he spend an otherwise perfectly worthwhile Saturday afternoon doing something like washing a family automobile, he could say, “Maybe, maybe not. What’s it worth to ya?”
These were children who took pride in their work. When they mowed a lawn, they trimmed the grass around the walk with pinking shears. When they carried out the trash, they put the lids back on the garbage cans. When they washed their mothers’ cars, they polished them with old, worn-out Fruit of the Loom undershorts. They used Windex to shine the rear-view mirror. They took out the floormats and vacuumed the left-over drive-in-movie popcorn out of the rugs.
That way, at 5 o’clock on a Saturday afternoon, they could walk into their parents’ living rooms and say, “Saw the floorboards needed a little extra attention. Went ahead and did it, even though it wasn’t part of your order. That’ll be another $7.25.”
And their parents would pay them, reaching into their purses and pockets and saying, “You know, Charlie Ray Jr., sometimes we are just so proud of you.”
I asked my parents for an allowance one time. My father said, “How much you want?” I said, “Charlie Ray Gilkey Jr. gets $2.50 a week.” My father said, “Don’t see how you’re gonna buy your own groceries out of that.”
Thus, I was left a beggar in my parents’ household, beholden to them for every Stri-dex pad I used, for every episode of Petticoat Junction I watched, for every french fry I ate. But I, unlike a great many other 13-year-old children in Alabama, had already started reading Balzac. I knew about the privations Pére Goriot suffered in order to buy beauty for his two heartless daughters, but I also knew the slow vengeance Cousin Bette wreaked on the nice-nasty relations downstairs.
When my mother would come into my bedroom on a Saturday morning and say, “I want you to wash the Rambler this afternoon,” I would say, “Mama, it’s Saturday. Do I have to?” To which my mother’s response would be, “You want me to hide the toilet paper again?”
And so, on a Saturday afternoon in the dreary summer or in the first crisp edge of autumn, I would get out in the front yard and wash the Rambler. I would hose it down, and then I would shake out the floormats. Then I would go to the garage and find an empty enamel-coated bucket. I would fill it half full of water from the garden spigot. Then I would add two full cups of Tide.
By the end of a summer or two, my mother’s car would be the color of a pair of old Hush Puppies. Eventually, my father would say, “Margaret, I don’t know what’s happening to your paint job.” My mother would say, “Must be something in the water.” My father would say, “Next time you need your car washed, I’m driving it into town.”
Thereafter, my Saturdays were my own. Thereafter, when I rode in the car with my mother, I would notice that we passed other cars whose paint jobs had faded to the color of a run-over suede lace-up. Sometimes, at such moments, I would say, “Mama, have you thought any more about giving me an allowance?” My mother would open her vent window and say, “Guess you think you’re the only 13-year-old boy in central Alabama who doesn’t get an allowance.”
A lackluster, buckskin-colored Oldsmobile would glide past, and my mother would say, “There’s Billy Millcock riding with his mother. I bet you Frances Millcock doesn’t give him an allowance.” I would see the sunlight lying flat on the trunk of the Oldsmobile. I would tell my mother, “You know, you’re probably right.”
If my parents had only given me $2.50 a week, if they had only given me $1.75, I would have known what to do when I saw a scrape on the side of my car. It was a white scrape, and I swear it had not been there the night before. I stared at the scrape and told myself, “I know there is a way to take care of this. I have seen people wash their own cars. I have even seen them wax their own hood ornaments.” I told myself, “I am certain they do this without getting paid.”
I told myself I was sure there was some way I could handle this crisis. This might, in fact, be the moment when I would vindicate myself, prove to myself that I could actually be free of the looming specter of my parents. I could wipe away all this ugliness; I could make my front bumper shine; and I could do all this, I knew, without using a box of Tide detergent. I figured I could use Bon-Ami instead. I ended up paying $175 so that a man in a turban could detail my car. When he saw my front bumper, he made me sign a release.
I would have been OK if it had not been for the valets. When I pulled up at the party the next night they were standing under street lamps and shining flashlights straight at me. When I got out of my car, the valet-in-charge, the one who was wearing the cap, said, “Just want you to know there’s a scraped-off-looking place here on your hood, sir.” I said, “Thank you for noticing. Don’t you have other customers?”
The valet-in-charge said, “I just wanted you to know, sir. I wouldn’t want you to think we were responsible.” I said, “I think I know the responsible parties.”
The valet-in-charge gave me a numbered slip of manila-colored cardboard. He said he was sorry to think that I was going to have to live with that sort of place on my bumper. That kind of dull patch, he told me, can stick with you for the rest of your life.