By Melody Murray
This is the second part of a 3-part serialization of a fictionalized version of real events. See Part 1 here.
When I was in middle school, Dad sold the gas station for his own U-Haul center—a small trailer that looked cramped from outside. Although it was in Northwest D.C., the white people hadn’t chased all of the black people into Maryland yet, so Dad put the trailer next to the brick wall of the adjacent building, a barbershop. He lined the fences of the lot with three layers of barbed wire, barred all the windows, affixed a lock to each gate, and installed a security system in the trailer.
There was a TV on the far side without cable, but anything would do to pass the time. I watched the judges in the morning because the predictability and forced jokes of the cartoons made my head hurt. The desk where we’d sit was dull gray metal quilted together like an old airplane fuselage. He put the computer—the first he’d ever bought—to work despite its wheezing.
I didn’t like the U-Haul as much as the gas station. I was older then, thirteen, and I thought I knew what I liked. TV and Tetris were enough most days, but sometimes I’d slide out of the office and into a truck that wasn’t scheduled to go out for a while, preferably one in the sun. I’d curl up in the brightest space, contorting to get the most of my body into the heat. My long legs would stretch straight out over the dashboard to the windshield where my toes would leave prints if I wasn’t careful.
Dad didn’t like the U-Haul much either. I think it was the monotony of having the same phone conversation over and over again.
“U-Haul, may I help you?”
“I need a truck.”
“In-town or one way?”
Here, the precision of enunciation increased. “Are you picking up and dropping off at the same location or are you picking it up one place and dropping the truck off somewhere else?”
“What size truck do you need?”
“I don’t know.” There was always a pause here as if they haven’t considered that trucks come in different sizes. “I have a lot of boxes,” they’d say, thinking that was helpful.
“How many bedrooms are you moving?”
“You need a fourteen foot truck. It rents for twenty-nine ninety-five for the truck, fourteen dollars insurance and—what day?
“Seventy-nine cents a mile.”
“I saw an ad that said the truck was nineteen ninety-five.”
“That’s for a local fourteen foot. I don’t have any of those. I only have one–way trucks.
“But I’m not going one-way.”
“I know, ma’am.” Women usually made reservations, but men usually picked up the trucks. Dad only got formal when his patience began to dip. “How long do you need the truck for?”
“Well it’s a twenty-four hour rental, isn’t it? I was gonna keep it for twenty-four hours.” This is where he started sighing. “You can keep it up to twenty-four hours for that one price, but it’s upon availability. I don’t have anything for twenty-four hours.”
“Well how long can I have it for?”
He’d motion for me to pull up his reservations on the computer screen. “I can give it to you for four hours, ten to two.”
“Four hours! I need it—”
“Or you can pick one up around four and bring it back the next morning.”
“What time do you open?”
“Well I have to be at—“
“You can park the truck legally on U Street and take the key up to the gas station on the corner.”
“I just need a name, phone number, and a credit card number.”
“A-Alright,” she’d agree. They usually ended up agreeing in the end.
This would be my father at about eleven o’clock on a Monday. By three on Thursday, he’d hang up on half of the callers, and there’d be wrinkles on his forehead as thick as my pen from scowling. The only time they’d smooth out was when the people who yelled at him would call back after realizing that this was the best deal they were going to get. He’d laugh at their clipped apologies and cowed acceptance of his demands. He’d laugh so you could see the light and dark pattern of his mercury fillings and enamel-colored caps. At the ends of the months and all throughout the summer when the college students were getting out of school, he reigned king. His U-Haul was small, but he was the only U-Haul in Northwest DC and just five blocks from Howard University.
Sometimes a professional, dark suit and attaché case, from downtown or Capitol Hill would scoff at the additional charge for insurance, or try to beat his chest to the front of the line, or maybe Dad just didn’t like the way the guy looked at him, and then poof, that guy’s truck would be gone.
“What?” the suit would say.
Dad would shake his head and hold up his hands, but he wouldn’t meet the guy’s eyes. “I can’t help you.”
If the guy raised his voice, Dad would look up from the reservation book or the computer screen. “You can yell all you want, but you ain’t getting a truck from me.”
If the guy slammed the door on the way out, Dad would smile.