Old Man's Car


My father often told me the story of his father -how he never got the chance to taste grapes. Grandpa died the very same day I was born with only a bicycle to his name. One day you'll buy me a Mercedes, said Dad. And he cried -his son, a college dropout and diagnosed schizophrenic -his son, who got sent into detention for a violent family argument -treated like a common criminal.


But that was some years ago. I hadn't made a lot of money since, though I remembered Father, and had just bought a self-driving car made by Daimler. It was a compact 2-seater in jet black. As the car pulled out of my apartment parking lot, I closed my eyes and prayed. We were going North -to the sleepy town of Taipeng -the "great peace", where my grandpa and grandma's ashes stood in 2 small urns side by side behind a glass pane in an outskirts Buddhist temple. I called ahead over the car-phone interface, just talking naturally with my eyes shut and my hands on my lap. Mom answered, 76 years old, yes, he's all packed. Remember to bring the offerings, I said hypocritically -they knew I was a Christian. I felt the car turn slowly and reverse into my parents' driveway.


Father emerged from the house carrying a black travel carry-on and a large garbage bag stuffed with the offerings: paper hell money gilded with faux gold and folded into Chinese boat ingot shapes. Sometimes, worshippers would also purchase paper shirts, cars, and houses to be burnt up to the Lord, but Dad's father died poor. In his mid-seventies, my father still had his hair, neatly trimmed and his shirt pressed. He wore the Uniqlo expandable leather belt I gave him after I was freed from rehab. It looked posh and the woven strips of recycled leather had acquired a wabi-sabi like most of his possessions.


Getting into the Daimler, he chuckled -finally, son, he said -a Merce. I smiled back calm and proud. It must have cost a bundle. No, I said, not really, it's made in China, just like all the electric self-drivings flooding the market. Dad was interested immediately. So, you don't have to touch the wheel? Yup, I said, feeling the admiration. He wanted to hug me, saying son -you've made it. But for affording a 99 dollar per month long term loan on this 2-seater, I brushed it off. I'm doing okay, I replied. He smiled. Tell it where to go, Dad. He gave the car the address of the Seri Malaysia hotel and I confirmed it with my voice. We sat back, two old men in state-of-the-art technology.


As the little Daimler weaved through the Saturday morning traffic, Dad leaned back, breathing heavily. I know you became a Christian because I treated you harshly, he said. What I do for my father, you don't have to do for me, he said, referring to the offerings of paper money and joss sticks. It's just that... he trailed off, wiping his eyes, I shouldn't have sold you out -it was wrong, but we were so poor. Dad, I started, also in tears, I'm sorry for hitting you.


Mother called and I picked up by voice command. She wanted to know we were safe, driving with the new-fangled technology. Father said the car's judgment was solid, and he was sure it would be an uneventful trip. In fact, both of us were happily sipping Starbucks iced lemon tea, while chatting with her. We nibbled on seaweed crisps, and had removed our shoes as well. Mom was aghast, but Dad reassured her, and she said to take care, grudgingly. She's just jealous, Father joked. Well, it shows I need to make more money, I said, thinking of a Proton 7-seater SUV, but Dad clapped me on the back and said, this one is just fine. We ate and drank, taking in the sights, as the little car pressed along the high limestone cliffs of the Kinta Valley. We're close to Taipeng now, said Dad.


Father asked whether I could give him command of the car for a while. I said, sure. Don't go straight to the Seri Malaysia, he said. Take us by the clock tower. There, said Dad, under the spreading Angsana trees, where we played as children in the falling yellow petals every evening. And he pointed out his old school, St. George's where he received a missionary-style education way before the government had enough resources to set up schools of their own; his family's rented house -a wooden affair on high stilts, squatting in a poorer neighborhood built over radioactive tin-mine tailings. So many here died of the "big C", he said, -your grandpa as well. We passed beneath the majestic rain trees planted during British times, which drooped overhead, dipping into the lake of the botanical gardens -a favorite location for wedding photography. But that afternoon, it was empty, and the sky bruised with blue-black clouds. Dad told me how coastal winds breaking on the marble-veined foothills brought rains to Taipeng every afternoon, how every schoolboy was resigned to getting wet, walking home after lessons.


Now you can take us to the hotel, he told the AI. And the car obeyed. We fitted into an electric vehicle parking bay automatically and both doors unlocked and popped ajar. Father was a little surprised. It knows it has 2 people in it? I shrugged, we live within a generation of "will wonders ever cease?" and "nothing much surprises". He shook his head at the irony as I hooked up the charging cable. That night, as we stared glassily at the hotel TV, Dad opined: If I had seen this far into the future, I would have been a better father to you. If we had done trips like this more, I wouldn't have lost control so easily, I said. People will fight in times of hardship, make up when they are prosperous. It's all nothing -that's life. Yup, I agreed softly. You know, thinking out loud, what if you burnt me up a paper Mercedes, -a self-driving one?


Dad and I became closer immediately following the Taipeng trip. Although the car was too small, we put the roof down and carried plants home from the nursery on our laps; we visited relations living out of the way; Mom and Dad went out together to the movies and the Daimler's auto-valet parked and picked them up afterwards. Father was so pleased: God has given me a good son! So, I came by more often and Dad got used to commanding my car which soon accepted him as the second driver -to my surprise. We were coming home from a dim-sum breakfast, and I was reading The Star e-Paper to him as he leaned back in the passenger seat, when out of the blue, he said, My Car: take us away. Pardon, sir? Questioned the AI. I raised an eyebrow. Take us away, he restated, far away, -far, far away. Very well, sir. I didn't have the heart to ask.

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