Fireworks and Pills

April 13th, 2014

My daddy used to vomit before every race. My mom said it was because of the fear, but he always said that fear was the only thing that drove him. Bobby said it was the party that they’d have afterwards that drove him, along with that healthy streak of competition. Whatever it was, it worked, and it drove him fast.

Daddy’s streak of rivalry and competition may have been healthy, but nothing could convince me that the stress and intensity that shook him in the thirty minutes before every race was. When I discovered, as an unfortunate witness, that he got sick before each race, I screamed and ran to my mom. It disturbed me even more that she had known all along.

Despite the pre-race sickness, he’d been knocking them off the list, one by one, placing in the top five all season. Daytona, The Brickyard, Bristol, Charlotte. We travelled with him to each track, all across the southeast and the midwest through those hot summer months. I grew accustomed to the salty grime of garage sweat and the low, dull hum of engines, until I heard them in my sleep. The crew team called me their mascot, and the other drivers smiled at me and would sometimes lift me up on their shoulders (but only if daddy allowed them to). Bobby would sometimes lift me up on his shoulders, or put his helmet over my head. And sometimes, only if daddy had recently defeated him, Bobby would let me sit in the seat and pretend to steer.

Being with the team before a race always gave us a good mood. I would watch the race as though I was watching a horse race or a baseball game, usually while stuffing my face with stadium food, and wearing three layers of ear protection. But all of that changed.

Daddy’s first wreck happened in July, the weekend after the 4th. There were fireworks that evening, but I watched them from the window of a hospital room in the middle-of-nowhere-Martinsville, Virginia. I don’t remember if they were loud or not, because the roar of daddy’s crash was the only thing I heard that day.

After the wreck was when I really started. I did the same thing every week. I asked him, then mom, then Bobby, then Phil Jr, the crew leader. Just one pill, that was all I wanted him to take – just to relieve the stress. But “No,” he would say, with the kindest, sweetest smile and that deep southern accent. “If I do that, I won’t be afraid, and we can’t have that, can we?”

And when he’d say that, I’d just go down the line. I’d ask mom to try and convince him to take something – anything. Something that’d make his nerves go away, as if being calmer could somehow make me calmer. When she’d say no, I just moved on to Bobby, who usually tried to argue with me, in an endearingly older brother way. Eventually, Bobby would offer some excuse and move on, frustrated and exasperated that he spent so much time arguing with a stubborn twelve-year-old girl. I’d move on to Phil Jr., and by that time would be brushed off with an “I’ll talk to him!” that never actually happened.

I tried to reason with daddy as if my life, not his, depended on it. And I probably believed that it did. A year passed. I slept less. And although a heavy portion of my diet still consisted of stadium food, I slowly grew thinner and thinner. Daddy noticed, and I promised to sleep better if he took pills to make him not throw up before each race.

The first time he took them was near the end of June. He told my mommy that it felt weird for him to not throw up, but he raced better for it. He was faster and more daring.

He started to spend more and more time in the garage. The guys in the garage joked about whether or not he’d really recovered his speed after the crash, and he snapped. I didn’t know that he could yell like that. He promised that he’d be faster than he’d ever been before his wreck, and made sure everyone knew it, along with some four letter words that I’d only heard from drivers after they lost a big race.

He skipped the 4th of July cookout that we had every year so that he could work on the car. That night, I went to the garage to ask him to tuck me in before bed.

“Not tonight, sweetie. I got work I gotta get done.”

“It’s okay. Jus’ take your medicine tomorrow, so you don’t throw up.”

He promised he would.

And he did. He took a lot of it, I could tell, because he raced like I’d never seen him race before. Like he wasn’t afraid anything. Like I never saw him race again.

If you aren’t afraid of anything, you’ll race like you have nothing to lose. But that’s never true, because you always have something to lose.

You just don’t always realize it.

And unless I take some of those pills for myself, I still can’t watch those fireworks.

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