Dirty Derby
    John Minichillo
The Pinewood Derby track ran the length of Tyler Elementary School's gym. Cub Scouts and Webelos sat cross-legged on the floor, the cars they spent weeks carving rested in their laps, the gym sonorous with anticipation. Near the weigh-in station, a card table, stood the two judges who volunteered every year. They loved the race and the kick that came with handing a kid his first trophy. The Scout sign went up and it took longer than usual for the gym to quiet.

On the table between the two men was the disputed entry, a car whittled into the shape of a naked woman. She was stained the color of a sun lover, her ankles crossed demurely over the front axle. She was reclined, rear axle in her hands, back arched, breasts sagging slightly, a triangular patch of fur glued at the top of her inner thighs. More sexpot than Barbie, she was Venus on a water slide, not the product of a prepubescent's imagination, with expertly carved windblown locks. Yet, she was all car. She kept a white-knuckled grip on the rear axle, biceps toned, sinews showing in her arms and hands. If you flipped her over she was stamped with a piranha tattoo. The judges disqualified not because of the nudity of the nude, but because the boy's father, who hovered around the judges' table, was a well-known regional artist adept in the medium of wood. And so it seemed the boy, an eight-year-old Charles who went by Chuck, had had more than a little help.

Meanwhile the heats began, the Cubs jumping up and shouting each time, Chuck's father with blood in his face. Chuck had grown up around art, his father had argued. And nudes. He'd had the benefit of a professional's chisels and Chuck was always whittling. And honest to God, Chuck's dad had said, the kid had had no help.

Cars were eliminated, cars were advanced, most with the advantage of parents: carpenters, mechanics, physics teachers, polymer science engineers. Chuck's dad looked around the gym and saw nothing but cars made by cheaters from various professions. One kid's car was so fast the boys stared open-mouthed when it ran, the gym silent when the mini roadster fwupped into the pillow at the end of the track. That car whirred, Chuck's dad objected. It was literally whirring.

But the judges didn't budge. Other Scouts had been allowed to shave off swaths of wood from their cars with pocketknives to stay within the restricted weight. Or they were allowed to nail on fresh plastic wheels to erase the transgression of a banned lubricant. So that only Chuck's car was left shunned on the judge's table.

Don't think Chuck actually carved her, though, he didn't. Not a whittle. And don't think Chuck's father dishonest or dirty. His sense of injustice was spurred by a lack of proof. Chuck could have carved the nude. His father even believed it. While the judges were busy with a semi-final heat, Chuck's dad ran over and set the Venus free. He was so hurried in his actions he put the car on the track backwards, so that her windswept hair was racing the wrong way. The Scouts were suddenly on their feet jostling for a better view, a near stampede to see. And Chuck's dad was cheering, and Chuck.

This was the first but not the last time the boy watched his father transmorph into an ass. No one for even a second believed Chuck had anything to do with that car.

A concerned Den Mother had called Chuck's mom that evening. Chuck's mother knew her husband was guilty, and when they came home without the confiscated car, she kept asking to see it. She teased Chuck until he cried. So that he clammed up and never told his version of events. Not even after his father left for good. And when his mother was feeling playful she would bring it up. Chuck would change the subject or he would sulk away.

Until finally two nights before she died in a hospital bed. He remembered the scene in the gym when he was a boy and he told the story, feeding it to her slowly like ice chips from her pitcher. He imagined her young again and he saw her like that, with long hair splayed over the hospital pillow. And he described the car as her likeness, though it wasn't. She had looks then, she was even a little vain. So she believed him, and she imagined a flock of Cubs rioting to look at her in miniature. And this was how Charles told the story from then on, reminded of the joy on his mother's bloated face as she doubled over with pain and laughter.

John Minichillo is an assistant professor of English at Middle Tennessee State University. His stories have appeared in Third Coast, Night Rally and the Mississippi Review Web Edition. He is currently seeking representation for a first novel.


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