I am descended from a father for whom washing the car was one of the most satisfying things a man could do. From my earliest years, I remember him relishing Saturday mornings in summer purely because they offered an opportunity to wash the car in the driveway.
He never asked for my help, and I felt that he didn't really want it. For him, washing the car was a solo act, a precious period of quiet when he could be alone with his thoughts.
And so I'd watch from the porch as he filled a bucket with detergent and water, put on his washing mitt, and soaped the old girl (a '62 Chevy Nova) down, his tongue distended between his lips as if he were tasting the experience. I wouldn't have been surprised had the car cooed with delight.
I have inherited this sense of pride in a clean car. There's something about the interaction of metal, water, and soap that is pleasing to the hand. Once I get going, I sway in place as I ease the sponge back and forth, back and forth, in overlapping arcs of lather. Then comes the rinse, and finally the coup de grâce – drying the car with a good quality chamois.
I have a 10-year-old son named Anton. I feel guilty about admitting this, but I try to wash the car when he's not around. He is a consummate helper with the work ethic of a lumberjack. That's a good thing. But, like my father, I think of the washing of my car as a solitary affair. Yet I don't want to put Anton off, for fear, perhaps, that if I hobble his industry now, he'll become a lazy teenager.
So, on those occasions when he catches me with sponge and bucket in hand, I always give him something to do, although it makes me feel slightly diminished. I might let him scrub the hubcaps or clean the inside of the windows or do the bumpers.
But his greatest joy is rinsing the car with the garden hose. It so happens that this is a joy for me as well, and it is always with a measure of reluctance that I surrender this task to my son.
Be all this as it may, a few weeks back there was an unusual turn of events. The car was filthy. I had been meaning to wash it for weeks, but just hadn't gotten around to it.
The last straw was when some anonymous passerby scrawled a message in the dust of the rear window: "Do not wash! Science experiment in progress." It was as if I had been forced to wear the scarlet letter.
Anton saw the dust artist's work at the same moment as I. "Is it really an experiment?" he asked.
I looked down at him. "No, Anton," I said. "It's just that the car is so dirty that we're scandalizing the neighborhood."
"Well," he said without missing a beat, "I can wash it for you."
Hmm. Well, maybe it was time to cede periodic responsibility for the washing task to my son who so wanted to emulate me. And what better way to begin to prime him for the inevitable day when he would care for a car of his own?
"OK," I said, "here's what you need to do."
"Dad," he said, impatient with me. "I've seen you do this a hundred times. I know what to do."
Having been duly admonished, I handed him the bucket, sponge, and detergent. "Have at it," I said, and went inside the house.
I actually felt a sense of liberation, knowing that the car was being cleaned while I was able to go on to another chore or simply relax.
After 20 minutes, though, my curiosity got the better of me, and I went outside to find – holy cow! – the car filthier than ever. It was covered with swirls of drying dirt, as if some avant-garde artist had used it for a canvas. Then I watched as Anton dropped the sponge on the ground.
"Anton," I said, regaining my voice. "Have you been putting the sponge on the ground all along?"
He stood there in his mud puddle with the broadest smile on his face, his clothes soaked, and a puff of suds on his cheek. He seemed not to have heard me, because all he could do was gush, "Doesn't the car look great, Dad?"
What could I say? Could he really be oblivious to the mud pack he had given my vehicle? Perhaps dirt was simply his artistic medium and his work did, indeed, look good to him. If so, did I dare risk squelching his creative impulses?
Gathering myself, I finally managed to say, "Well, in its own way, yes. Next time, though, use a little less dirt, and it will be perfect."
For the record, I have given up washing my car as a solo act. Anton and I do it as a duet now. Between his energy and my attention to detail, the vehicle has never looked so good.