He saw the truck out of the corner of his eye as he passed through the dining room on his way to the kitchen for his morning cup of coffee. At first, it didn’t register, just a blur of red paint shining in the morning light. As Nick poured his coffee, it hit him and his head swung around toward the dining-room window. He couldn’t see the truck from that angle, but the sudden swerving of his torso made him pour coffee onto the counter. It spattered onto his bare foot, making him swear loudly.
Don’t be ridiculous. It can’t be that truck. That one would be scrap metal by now.
He cleaned up the spill and finished making his breakfast of black coffee, two sugars, and an English muffin with peanut butter. He strolled as nonchalantly as possible over to the dining-room window, wondering as he did so who he thought he was being nonchalant for. No one else was in the house. He looked out at the neighbor’s driveway, where a scarlet red 1990 Ford Ranger sat.
It was the same truck. Not just the same make and model, but the exact same truck. He looked at the place where they had fixed the dent in the right rear side panel. She couldn’t afford to match the original paint job, so they had bought some auto spray paint and done their best. It was a close match, but if you were looking for it, you’d see it.
It was definitely Beth’s truck.
Beth had bought the truck used in 1995, in their senior year of high school, and they had fixed it up together in her driveway. They had spent afternoons and weekends taking the engine apart, cleaning every piece and putting it back together. There had been nothing really wrong with it other than the previous owner’s neglect. She had gotten a car repair book out of the library and had renewed it every two weeks while they worked on the car. After the fourth time, the librarian said that two times was the limit for renewals. So, Nick had had to take it out on his card a few more times before they finished, just in time for graduation. They had spent an idyllic summer in that truck, driving to the lake for a swim, having picnics at a nearby nature reserve or simply going back and forth to their summer jobs, hers at the ice cream parlor in town and his at the hardware store.
The whole thing had appalled her mother. “Fixing cars is not an appropriate pastime for a teenage girl,” she had said. To be honest, she disapproved of a girl owning a pickup at all. She didn’t like Beth hanging out with him, either, because he wasn’t college bound. In her opinion, Beth should have aimed higher than a guy whose plan was to switch at the end of the summer from part- to full-time at the same hardware store he had worked at since turning sixteen. He was not “marriage material” according to Mrs. Snyder. The only plan Beth’s mother had for her was that she make a good marriage.
Beth’s mother had had a lot of old-fashioned rules like that. The woman had been born in the early 1950s and was in her late teens when the women’s movement started, but she had let it pass her by. She had kept all the strict gender-role nonsense of the previous generation.
Mrs. Snyder was unbending. She intended to keep herself and her children in the world her own mother had grown up in. She was strict, a dictator. Beth’s father did not get involved in the raising of the children. His job, according to Mrs. Snyder, was to go to work and wear a tie to church on Sunday.
Beth’s siblings all fell into line, but not Beth. She seemed to be immune to her mother’s influence. Beth wasn’t outwardly rude to her mother. She simply found her mother’s opinions quaint. Beth would smile and nod her head at her mother’s pronouncements and then do what she felt was right for her.
All that calm, firm defiance came to a head that summer after high school graduation when Beth said she would not be going to the state college, but that she would attend a music academy that she had secretly applied to. Beth wanted to study modern music composition and entrepreneurship. She wanted to be a professional musician. She had been taking piano lessons since she was six and had taught herself guitar at age twelve. Her dream was to perform her own music in clubs and at festivals. She wanted to make albums and have her songs played on the radio. She wanted to start a band. A rock band.
Mrs. Snyder was dead set against her daughter having a career in music. Rock and roll bands were a gateway to drugs and debauchery. She had pushed her other daughters into teaching. Mrs. Snyder had the sisters’ lives planned out: college, a teaching certificate, marriage, children, and then they could go back to teaching once their own children were in school. Every one of the older girls fell in line. Only Beth resisted. She had done just fine in school and could have majored in several subjects, but music was always Beth’s passion.
Mrs. Snyder did not hold with passions. She would not give Beth the tuition money for the music academy. Beth would go to the local state college and study something sensible and be happy about it. Music, especially rock and roll, was out of the question.
Beth finished out her last two weeks at her summer job in the ice cream parlor, packed the truck, and drove away.
She never came back.
And now, twenty-five years later, the truck was parked in the driveway as if it had never left. The truck looked amazing after all these years. There were small signs of wear, but on the whole, it had held up well.
It made Nick furious to see it.
How could she just show up like this? She had sent no word that she was coming. She could have. He still lived in the same house. He still had the same phone number on the landline. But why would she have told him she was coming? She had never written, even though she had promised she would. She had never told him where she had gone. He knew nothing about what she had been doing for the last two and a half decades. As far as he knew, she hadn’t kept in touch with anyone from her family or anyone from their high school class after she had left. More than once over the years, Nick had wondered if something bad had happened to her and that was why she had never contacted him. As for Mrs. Snyder, she had simply stopped talking about Beth. It was as if Beth had never existed.
Nick had been there for Beth her whole life. They had grown up next door to each other. She had played checkers with him on his front porch. They had gone to their senior prom together. They had fixed up the truck together. In fact, she never would have been able to do it without him. She had asked him to help before she had even started looking at the used car ads in the paper.
They had been good friends for years. And then, in the summer after graduation, they had become more than friends. They had talked of a future together, and on the night before Beth left, they had driven the truck up to the lake and had found a quiet spot. Beth had laid a thick quilt in the truck’s bed and they had made love under the stars and she had made promises that she never kept.
Nick had continued to work at the hardware store, becoming Mr. Owens’s right-hand man, being promoted to manager when Mr. Owens retired, and buying the store from Mrs. Owens when Mr. Owens died.
Nick had also married at twenty-five, gotten divorced at age thirty-five, and now shared custody of his two teenage sons with his ex-wife. He had bought his childhood home from his parents when they had moved to Florida. He had a pleasant life and a successful business and nice kids, and he hardly ever thought about Beth. But when he did think of her, he wondered how it would have worked out. Would he have followed her if she had asked him to? Would she have come home to him? Was their relationship made to last or was it just a teenaged romance? Puppy love? Would she have found fame as a musician? She obviously hadn’t, or he’d have heard of her, right?
What had she been doing all these years?
His coffee had gone cold. He looked up at the clock. If he was going to open the store by nine, he’d better get a move on. He went upstairs to shower.
Nick was locking the side door when he heard the screen door slam at the Snyders’. He turned just in time to see Beth skip down the front porch steps and bound over to the pickup. She glanced over at him, waved, and gave him a huge smile.
“Good morning!” she called, “Lovely day!”
She jumped into the truck, started it up, and pulled out of the driveway while Nick stood there gaping at her.
Not only was it the same truck, it was the same Beth! She looked exactly the same as the day she had driven away twenty-five years ago. Nick shook his head.
Impossible! It’s not Beth. Beth is forty-two. She must have a daughter. He laughed at himself. Had he thought Beth fell into a time warp with her truck and then fell out again, twenty-five years later?
He drove to work, wondering how he was going to find out where Beth was and why a young woman, who was obviously her daughter, had come to town.
Nick spent the day in his office, completely distracted, letting his staff take care of the customers. This was not like him at all. Both his floor walkers and his secretary had asked him if he was feeling okay. He assured them he was fine.
He was far from fine.
His mind was obsessed with plans on how to get in the door at Mrs. Snyder’s. They weren’t exactly friends. She blamed him for Beth’s going away. He never could figure out her reasoning there. If anyone was to blame, it was Mrs. Snyder for being overbearing and unyielding. Nick’s mother had told him back when it happened that Mrs. Snyder needed a scapegoat because it was too painful to think that she had pushed her own child away. Well, that was her own fault, wasn’t it? He couldn’t imagine a scenario where he pushed either of his sons away like that.
It turned out that he needn’t have worried about how to get into a conversation with Beth’s daughter. She was sitting on his front porch swing when he pulled into his driveway after work. As he got out of the car and walked toward the porch, she stood up to greet him.
“Hi,” she said, “Sorry to be sitting here without permission, but I wanted to catch you when you came home and my grandmother doesn’t have a comfy place to sit on her porch and you do and, well….” She trailed off, shrugging. She looked so much like Beth that Nick was dumbstruck. He just stared at her.
Her smile faltered. “I’m sorry. Do you want me to go?”
Nick shook his head and tried to recover. “No, no. It’s fine. Sit. I’ll get some lemonade. Do you like lemonade? Of course, you do. Everyone likes lemonade… It’s just… I mean… You look exactly like your mother.”
Her smile returned with a bit of sadness in it.
“Oh, I see. Yes. That must be a shock. I do look very much like her.” She paused, and then said, “I like lemonade, by the way.”
“Yes, absolutely. I’ll be right back.” He hurried into the house to pour some lemonade and breathe slowly until his heart stopped pounding. He had been thinking all day about how he would approach Beth’s daughter, but he hadn’t come to any conclusions. Now that she was sitting on his porch, he didn’t know how to proceed.
He put two glasses and a pitcher of lemonade onto a tray, along with a plate of Oreos, and carried it outside. Nick laid the tray on a small table between the swing and a wicker chair, where he sat, and wondered why this young woman was here. What did she want from him, and how long was he was going to hold out before asking where Beth was, what she had been doing all these years, and why wasn’t she here with her daughter and her truck? He thought maybe he could wait twenty seconds, but he was wrong.
The first thing she said blasted all those questions out of his mind, to be replaced by other, more important, questions.
“I have two things to tell you and they are hard to say, so I’m simply going to say them,” she said.
“Okay,” he said, “I’m ready.”
“My name is Nikki Snyder, and I was born May 18th, 1996,” she said.
“Oh?” He looked confused. Then he did the math.
“Oh!” he yelled, standing up and pacing back and forth. “Oh, my God! She didn’t tell me! Why didn’t she tell me?”
Nick sat down again and stared at the woman sitting across from him. Beth’s daughter. His daughter. How could Beth have kept this from him?
Nikki sat quietly, watching the man react to the news that he had an adult child he never knew about. She had worried that he would react badly, that he might deny her or send her away.
Instead, he said, “I’m so sorry.” His chin dropped to his chest. He looked up again, his eyes glistening.
“Why are you sorry? You did nothing wrong.”
“I’m sorry I wasn’t there for you. I’m sorry I wasn’t there for Beth,” he said. “Being sorry makes no sense because I didn’t know. But I’m still sorry you didn’t have a father. Unless?”
“No,” she said, “I never had a step-father. It was just mom and me.”
“What was she thinking? Why didn’t she come back when she found out she was pregnant? I’m sorry if I sound angry, but well, I’m angry!”
Nikki felt a sudden kinship with this man, her father, a man she didn’t know.
“I was pretty pissed off when I found out, too.” She smiled a crooked smile at him and looked so much like her mother, it stabbed Nick in the heart. “I’ve gotten over it since. I asked her why she hadn’t come back. She said that, at first, she didn’t want to come slinking back with her tail between her legs. A matter of false pride, I guess. Then, she said it got harder and harder to figure out how to tell you, the longer she went without telling you.”
Nikki took a bite of cookie and a sip of lemonade. “That part was just pure cowardice, I think.”
“No. Not cowardice. Misplaced independence, probably.”
Yes. That was the Beth he remembered. Back when she asked him to help her with the truck, he thought she had been reluctant to involve him in her project. He had the feeling that she had only asked for his help because there were parts of the job that she was simply not physically strong enough to do. He had been glad at the time that she had asked for his help at all and had jumped at the chance to spend time with her. But Beth had always been a loner. Even with four siblings, she stood alone against her overbearing mother. She had been on the fringes of a clique in school, but Nick thought she had only done that because she had no bestie to hang out with. Their summer together had been an outlier in Beth’s life, the only time she had put herself into any relationship. She was friendly to all, but she had never really had friends. He wondered now how she had survived back then with no one to help her.
“How in the world did she manage, as an 18-year-old, to have a baby and keep a roof over your heads?” he asked.
“The first six years, she worked at a motel as a receptionist and maid, for which she got room and board and a small amount of money. We ate the leftovers from the breakfast buffet and we lived in a room behind the front desk. From a kid’s point of view, it was heaven. As far as I knew, I lived in a house with a pool!”
Nikki laughed, but Nick didn’t seem to get the joke.
“It’s fine,” Nikki said. “I had a happy childhood. My mother loved me and took care of me. I never missed a meal. I had a clean place to live, and I owned clean, secondhand clothes and toys. She did a damned good job, especially considering how young she was. Yes, she was independent to an absurd degree, but everyone has flaws.”
Nick couldn’t help but agree with that. Everyone has flaws. His marriage had failed. It had been mostly his fault and, although he now had a good relationship with his sons, it had been rough for a while after the marriage broke up.
All this talk about Beth made him wonder again why she wasn’t here with Nikki. What had happened? Where is she? He was afraid to ask that just yet, though.
“What happened after the first six years?” he asked.
“What do you mean?”
“You said that you lived in the motel for the first six years. Did you move after that? Did Beth get a different job? Was it in music? She wanted to be a musician.”
Nikki smiled. “Yes, she started earning money with music when I was still a baby. The couple who owned the motel had connections to other hoteliers and Mom played piano in their bars on Sunday afternoons and had occasional gigs as a singer, with a few trios and quartets at local hotels. She sang wherever and whenever she could. She played original music at open mic nights as a way of networking, even wrote some jingles for local radio ads. By the time I was in school, we had moved out of the motel and into an apartment and most of her income was from music.”
“Good for her!” Nick said. “I’m happy that she could pursue her dreams. Was she sad that she never made it big?”
“I don’t think so. She knew she was good at what she did and I think she realized that, sometimes, you just don’t get your big break. At least, that’s what she told me. She said she loved her work, and that was what was important. We sure had some fun times!
“Every once in a while, she’d have an unexpected expense like the truck breaking down or dental bills, like that. And she’d say, ‘Hop in the truck! We’re going on tour.’ She knew when all the bars, restaurants, clubs and hotels had karaoke contests and she’d go enter them. She’d win more often than not. When I was a teen, we’d do duets. We always won those. The sweetness factor, you know? We were a mom and daughter duo. Irresistible.”
Nikki laughed and took a sip of her lemonade. She had had a happy childhood and was clearly enjoying talking about it. This made Nick slightly less angry with Beth for not coming home.
Nikki sat up. “Oh! I forgot about the summers! When I was in grade school, Mom wanted to spend the summers with me, so she bought a camper top for the truck and we spent several summers living at a campground that Mom managed for the owners and she’d have sing-a-longs at night around the fire. We did that until I was sixteen and got myself a summer job. We never had a lot of money, but we had what we needed and we had a lot of fun.”
Nick couldn’t put off the question any longer. He was going to have to ask. He tried to brace himself for the answer that he was dreading.
“Why are you here alone?” Nick asked, “Where’s Beth?”
Nikki heard the catch in his voice. She saw the fear and pain in his eyes.
“Oh! No, no,” she said, “She’s fine! Well, she’s not fine, but she’s alive. That’s why I’m here. She needs help and she can’t ask for it, because, well, she is who she is. So I came ahead to pave the way or to find out that no one wants to help. But, so far, my aunts and uncles are open to helping, so it’s looking good, and I just wanted to talk to you, too, because if she comes back, she’ll be living right next door and I thought you should know. And, also, I wanted to meet you.”
Nick closed his eyes and nodded his head. His thoughts whirled around in his head. He hadn’t gotten the answer that he had feared and all his adrenaline was coursing around with nowhere to go.
He pressed his fingers to his eyes for a moment until he could function again.
“I’m so relieved.” He sat back in his chair, relaxing for the first time since he saw the pickup in the driveway this morning.
Suddenly, the rest of what Nikki said registered. He sat up again. “Wait. How is she not fine? What’s the matter?”
“She was in a car accident. A bad one. She was coming back from a gig out of town with a trio she fronted for. The bassist died in the accident. Mom fractured her pelvis and her ankle and got pretty banged up. She was in the hospital for a while and then in and out of a rehab facility. She wasn’t able to work for months. We had to sell some stuff to pay the medical bills. When she gets out of this stint in rehab in two weeks, we’ll need a place to stay and I’ll need to find a job around here. I’m a nurse. I’ll be able to care for Mom, and help with Grandma, too, and I’ll still be able to work part-time, I think.”
The sun had gone down and Nikki shivered.
“It’s getting chilly,” said Nick. “Would you like some coffee? Come on in and I’ll put on a pot and make a couple of sandwiches and we can talk about this plan of yours.”
They went into the house. Nikki sat at the kitchen table while Nick busied himself with the coffee and sandwiches, asking Nikki her preferences in cold cuts and mayo vs. mustard.
He placed the plates on the table, along with a bowl of potato chips. As he sat down, he said, “Do you really think it’s a good idea for Beth to live with her mother? They never had a relationship like yours. I don’t know if you realize how contentious it was.”
“I’m getting a taste of it,” she said. “Sometimes Grandma Snyder thinks I’m my mother, and she’s not always very nice. I’ve worked with people with dementia before, so it doesn’t bother me. But I have wondered how Mom is going to handle it. What else can we do, though? Beggars can’t be choosers and family is family.”
Nick smiled and gestured to his surroundings.
“Beth could stay here,” he said. “You could, too, if you wanted to. There’s plenty of room.”
Tears welled in Nikki’s eyes.
“I didn’t come here to ask this of you.”
“I know. The offer is of my own free will. I have to believe it’ll be nicer here than over at Mrs. Snyder’s.”
“It’s so generous of you. Why are you making the offer, though?” asked Nikki, “After all Mom did to you? You even said that you were angry.”
“Nikki, I’ve loved your mother since we were seven years old. Yes, I’m angry at her for keeping you a secret from me. But that’s my problem and I’ll deal with it.”
Nick laughed ruefully.
“You know, my ex-wife told me when she asked for a divorce that I had never gotten over loving Beth and I didn’t realize until today that she was right. If Beth needs me, I’m there. If you need me, I’m there for you, too. Family is family, right?”
© 2021 Liza Cameron Wasser