“Uncle Vernon’s Truck” by Heather O’Brien

He’s had the same house since he was a newlywed teen, the same American made truck since before the war, and the same good ole country boy attitude since he was born.

He was my Great Uncle Vernon. 

The truck sputtered and coughed up black smoke. She rattled and wheezed through the streets, but no matter how worn down and tired she got, my Uncle Vernon would always lovingly pat her body anytime he walked past. Rusted holes painted her like freckles and moles. I liked to think that he felt such a kinship to the truck because they seemed to age together, at the same rate. 

She was my Great Uncle’s brick red ‘57 Ford F-100.

Grr. Eek. Grr.

She growled and whined as Uncle Vernon started her up. Her tires kicked at the dust and rocks of the Piggly Wiggly’s parking lot. I felt bad. She wanted more of a nap, one longer than the time it took for us to run in for two diet colas and a box of M&Ms. She continued her tantrum while Uncle Vernon sweet-talked her until she began to purr. Her body began to vibrate steadily like those 50¢ massage chairs at the mall.

“That’s my girl,” he praised, rubbing the steering wheel. The affection in his voice was one that was reserved for only close loved ones.

I’d heard this voice often when he spoke to his wife, to his mother, and to his sister, my grandma, but since I was not a staple in our family’s hometown of Advance, Missouri I had to work to get that kind, soothing voice directed at me.

In this family, love is earned.

When I visited Advance for the first time, I was just a baby. I don’t remember the trip, but there are plenty of stories. I took my first steps as I ran from my parents and grandma in the St. Louis Airport.

The second time, I was older. I was around seven, enjoying the summer before my second-grade year, and though I don’t remember much, I do remember my Great Uncle Vernon. I remember his laugh. That loud, clamorous, thundering guffaw. The kind that made your ears ring and your cheeks sting from the smile it brought you. I remember his truck, that “old beaten up thing” as my grandma and her stepmom would call it. I remember that three of my front top teeth had fallen out before I had gotten there, and I remember that a fourth fell out on my plate while we–my mother and my father’s mother–sat for breakfast in Advance’s best diner. It sunk slowly into the syrupy, buttery pancake abyss and it took my appetite down with it.

I remember sitting in my Great Grandma Brown’s living room. Her fridge filled with homemade berry preserves. I was playing on the floor; as the only child in the room, I was doted on by every adult. It was getting later in the evening–we had just gone to dinner at the fancy steak house just outside of Advance. That was when Uncle Vernon had finally completely loved me like one of their own as he watched me try to eat corn-on-the-cob unsuccessfully with all my missing teeth. I remember the laughter that filled the air, him thinking it was the funniest thing in the world and my seven-year-old brain wanting to make it funnier and funnier just to hear him laugh. He had never laughed with me like that before.

 I remember this evening vividly. The colors, the town, my Great Uncle Vernon all become more alive through the dreamy blue eyes of seven-year-old me.

The midwest sky was pink with hints of purple splotched throughout. A gold wave spread out from the sun that set behind the rows of houses in Advance. Trees were shaded and continued to darken until they became pure black silhouettes amongst the black silhouetted houses. The quiet Midwest town became a Thomas Kinkade painting.

Uncle Vernon walked over as the sky turned navy. A mason jar, previously used to hold my Great Grandma Brown’s strawberry preserves, was in his hands. He had come from the garage where he poked crude, jagged holes into the lid of the jar with a rusty old screwdriver. His bones squeaked as he knelt down to be eye level with me on the floor. “Heather, do you want to catch some lightnin’ bugs?” I couldn’t have gotten up any faster if I had tried and Uncle Vernon’s bones crunched as he stood back up. I seemed to vibrate along, my excitement manifesting itself into the gentle buzzing of my little body.

We walked outside with the mason jar, the rest of the adults on the porch watching us. They cooed as they watched me run around collecting lightning bugs, pale blonde hair swirling in the gentle prairie winds as the navy sky turned to plum and finally to black with bright polka-dotted stars. 

I never got to see stars like that in San Francisco.

When it got too late, Uncle Vernon picked me up, swinging me around him with the expertise of a man who was a teenager in the fifties, and I clung to his back, mason jar clenched firmly in my right hand. I stared at the lightning bugs in my jar, giving them names and explaining their stories to my Uncle Vernon as he gave me a piggyback ride to my room in my great-grandma’s home. 

He tucked me into bed that night with the mason jar on the nightstand, lightning bugs flashing their little lights, their commanding presence in the room like lightning during a storm–they used Morse Code to plead for their escape. Uncle Vernon walked to the window, taking my mason jar with him, and he let them go as if he could understand their cries. I pouted as I watched them leave and said my goodbyes to Jerry, Nina, and Bitsy. “They’re all gone now,” I cried out sadly, looking out the window they flew through. I’d never find them again, but I hoped they were happy wherever they went.

“Not all, there is still one little lightnin’ bug left.” He smiled and bopped my nose. His voice was warm and dripped with his country boy accent, like fresh caramel off an apple. It was the voice he reserved for only close loved ones.

We rode together in a quiet peace, letting Uncle Vernon’s truck do all the talking. She hiccupped only once or twice, and each time Uncle Vernon had a flash of concern pass over his face.

I watched the houses blur together and I focused on the rosy pink sky. I thought of Jerry, Nina, and Bitsy, who, though I only met last night, I thought I loved dearly. But as we continued, my thoughts became distracted by other things, like how I loved this new Polly Pocket my mom had bought me. And just like that Jerry, Nina, and Bitsy evaporated out of my brain and into the ozone along with the black exhaust of Uncle Vernon’s truck. 

I wondered in my seven-year-old head, as my lightning bug friends disappeared from my memory, if I would ever love anything as much and for as long as my Great Uncle Vernon loved his truck.

We bumped along, every pebble in the road feeling like a mountain acting as an unofficial speed bump. I gazed forward out the window. A giant, rusty STOP sign caught my attention and filled my head with thoughts of just how old that sign must have been and how many cars it had seen stop in front of it. The sign sat right outside of the house that belonged to my family’s friend, Ms. Kathy. She was an elderly woman and she had given me a raccoon stuffed animal after I played The Ants Go Marching on her older-than-her wooden piano in her living room. My head moved with my gaze as I watched us approach and pass the sign. The window that showcased the piano in Ms. Kathy’s house had its curtains closed, only lightly swaying from the force of Ms. Kathy’s fan, which sat across the room.

Uncle Vernon didn’t move for the brake pedal; he didn’t even flinch. He just kept on truckin’ through the sleepy little town.

“That was a stop sign,” I stated obviously. I tore my gaze away from the picturesque small-town scenery to look at my wrinkled and worn-down ancestor. Curiosity and a need for an answer scrunched my nose and narrowed my eyes as I awaited an explanation.

He shot me a grin over his shoulder. It was a wide yellowed smile and his veiny hand reached over to rub the dashboard in front of him. “We’ve been here a heck of a lot longer than that sign there, so it don’t apply to us.” Then he laughed, his beautiful cacophony of a laugh, and his truck sputtered out some exhaust. They laughed together, sharing a joke I’d never truly understand, as we continued to roll our way through the tiny Midwest town.

Heather is a graduate from Cleveland State University having obtained a bachelors in English Literature. She has loved reading and writing all of her life; putting special emphasis on the small details. She attributes much of her inspiration to Charles Dickens whose books she’s read and adored since she was young. To her nothing is too small to comment on. Her main focus with her writing is to put onto paper her observations of the people around her and attempt to understand the complexities of human relationships. She’s been published before for both her creative nonfiction work in Open Minds Quarterly Spring 2020 and in Havik Literary Magazine in Spring 2019 for her flash fiction piece.