Pine Box Derby

By Jackie Davis Martin

The three were isolated in the din of the all-purpose room where chairs slammed, a microphone screeched, and little boys chattered and called out, wild with excitement. It was the evening of the Cub Scout Pine Box Derby. Robbie, Leanna’s eight-year-old son, stood alone the foot of the racing track, gliding his car back and forth over the palm of his hand. Across the room James, the person Leanna had married, mistakenly she realized, leaned against a cafeteria table with two of the mothers. He was holding his paper cup of punch somewhat disdainfully, arm extended, while the same look surveyed the surrounding chaos until it settled on Leana, who was seated in the audience section of folding chairs. Where is he? James pantomimed, and Leanna pointed to the boy. Robbie had been joined by a friend, and the two were hunched over in giggles.  

James twisted his way through the crowd to where the boys stood. At James’ approach, Robbie took a step back, but listened, staring at the floor, until James finished talking to him. Then the boys joined hands and ran to the other side of the room. James straightened and palmed back his hair. 

Leanna looked the other way. “You’re Robbie’s mom, right?” the woman next to her said. I’m Nathan’s.” She indicated ta boy with bangs who was standing between the knees of a tall, dark-haired man. “Miss Schumann’s class?” 

“Oh!” Leanna said. “I remember.” She recognized many of these women from PTA, where they had talked of their husbands, mostly doctors, of clubs or art classes. Last year, before she married James, when Leanna had stopped at the grocery after the office, she’d often see one of the mothers with her toney arms, the pom-poms of her socks peeking over the backs of tennis shoes. The woman would smile absently at Leanna, who felt patronized: a single mother who had to work, whose skirt and heels might as well have been a maid’s livery 

In front of the small stage of the all purpose room the cub scouts lined up to salute the flag. Leanna placed her hand where her heart should be. Robbie stepped forward to hit the recorder’s button for “The Star Spangled Banner,” his left hand clutching his Derby car tight against his thigh. The car was one he had whittled for hours from the block of pine wood distributed to the scouts a month before, but he’d barely made a dent in its structure, just rounding off the edges. He painstackingly painted the vehicle in orange and blue, the colors of his favorite football team. After he mounted the wheels, he sat at the kitchen table, arranging the car at different angles to study it, tilting his head.  

The boys were drawing numbers for racing order as James slid into place next to her, picking up her handbag that had saved the seat for him and placing it on his own lap. “You know what I just found out?” He addressed her ear in a whispered indignation. “Most of those fathers worked on those cars. They said it was supposed to be a father-son project.”

“I didn’t know.” She took back her handbag and tucked it under her chair.

“I thought it meant encouragement. I encouraged him, didn’t I?” The din of the room subsided and James’ question rang through. Nathan’s mother tilted forward and smiled at them. James fluttered his fingers in her direction and returned to his stage whisper. “I thought the boys were supposed to build their cars! It’s a Cub Scout event, not a father competition, isn’t it?”  

“Shh!” Leanna indicated the front of the room where Robbie was waving his starting number in their direction. She raised her fist in cheer.

“’Oh God,’ James gasped. Robbie’s car, gaining a little momentum, was moving crookedly across empty lanes.”

“Well, I think it’s ridiculous.” James swung one leg over the other knee and crossed his arms, almost sulking.

“It’ll be fine,” she said, fearing that “fine” as not what “it” would be at all. Little was fine. She and James had had awkward sex only several times before they’d married, those times initiated by her, and she assumed, inhibited for him by custody threats from Bob. She’d thought marriage would free James, but nothing had changed.

Chairs scraped and shifted again, half a dozen blue-uniformed boys, the first racers, assembled themselves at the top of the track, Robbie among them. Leanna stood to peer, the petulant James standing too.

Two nights ago Robbie had sought out Leanna in the laundry room. “Can I call Daddy and ask him to come see me race my car?” Bob had missed four weekend visits in a row. “To come to my Pine Box Derby?” He watched her fold towels, waiting.

“Honey, I think he works on Wednesdays.” She didn’t even know if Bob had a job; she seldom saw any money. “You can try, if you want.”
“But he knows where my school is, right?” His eyes were round with expectation.

“I think so. Yes. He does.” At back-to-school night in the fall Bob had staggered into the second grade teacher’s presentation and announced himself. He’d glared at Leanna, attending alone that night. When he spotted Robbie’s work on the bulletin board, Bob had lurched out of his small seat toward the display. “That’s my boy!” he told the room. “Robert Junior.” Miss Schumann had nodded and been more than kind, Leanna remembered. Still, Leanna had been forced to exit with Bob, to accompany his whiskey redolence down the hall: Robbie’s parents.

“Daddy says he can’t come this time,” Robbie reported to her last evening. “Maybe next time.” His lips closed tightly. He still sucked his thumb falling asleep.

Now eight boys were tensed in a parallel line of blue shirts and yellow neckkerchiefs, their raised hands gripping their cars. Then they crouched dramatically forward, poised. The whistle blew and the boys let go, gasping with tension. The track was like a wooden ski run, initially sloping sharply, leveling off, then down and up over a big hump toward a long curve to the finish. Seven cars whizzed down the first third; one barely moved. It was Robbie’s. It chugged awkwardly, pushing itself along.

“Oh God,” James gasped. Robbie’s car, gaining a little momentum, was moving crookedly across empty lanes. Robbie walked to the side of the track following, waiting, hands at his sides as his car limped sideways. He didn’t look toward the bottom, the finish line, where cheers and shouts proclaimed Nathan’s car the winner, the others coming in close behind.
Now boys’ voices screamed, “Look! Look at that!” They were pointing up the track, laughing. “Whose car is that?” Everyone turned to the little orange and blue car still jerking itself unevenly down the first slope, toward the side where Robbie stood. The boys hooted, gathered at the track’s edges. “Whose? Whose is it!” They doubled over in giggles, clutching their stomachs.

Still Robbie waited, until the car, reaching the end of its jagged trajectory, fell off the track and landed on the floor. The boys roared.

“Oh God,” James said again.

“Shut up,” Leanna said.

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“It’s mine,” Robbie announced. He retrieved the car and held it up. “It’s mine. I made it.” He placed it in the cradle of one hand, holding it out at chest level, like an offering. “I made it myself,” he said. 

The boys pushed toward him. Robbie didn’t move; he smiled self-consciously and let them poke at his car, then he laughed with them, and they were all laughing together. Leanna watched, holding her breath, until they rearranged themselves, all focused on a new set of cars for the next race.   

Across the room James was examining the cars from the first round, turning them over like small turtles. Robbie remained in the same spot for all the races, following the whoosh of the cars, close calls all, staying to the end, to the winners’ run-off.    

Later, at the ice cream parlor, James said, “They were weighted! They all had these little weights implanted. Special ball-bearing wheels.”

Robbie listened while he vigorously mixed the chocolate syrup into the vanilla ice cream, beating it into the mush he liked.

“What on earth are you doing to that ice cream?” James shuddered.

“Mixing it all up, same as we all did,” Leanna said sharply, digging into her own sundae. James was having only coffee since he feared gaining weight.

I didn’t,” he said. “I wasn’t allowed to play with my food!” Allowed was a word used frequently in James’ family—or implied. When Leanna married James, his sister seemed apprehensive, puzzled, not allowed, apparently, to say what she was thinking, not allowed to voice her misgivings. Leanna, now part of their family, didn’t allow herself to ask:  Did you know?  The now-ex Bob had implored Leanna over the phone, “You can’t let yourself do this, Leanna. He’s hiding behind you.”

“He loves me,” she had said, wounded and angry at Bob’s failures. “He’ll take care of us.” 

Bob had hung up.

Robbie was now studying his ice cream swirl, which he mushed vigorously one more time. Satisfied, he leaned in to scoop up a spoonful.

“Next year.” James poked Robbie’s arm. “Next year we’re going to build you a winning car. I know the secrets now.” He drained his cup and drummed his fingers on the table top, waiting for them to finish. “Ha!”  

Leanna couldn’t sleep that night, reliving the crowd’s derision, their tangled faces and mocking sounds; she’d picdture the wobbly car falling again off the edge, and she’d jump as though she had fallen. She left the sleeping James in their large shared bed—another sham– and poured herself some wine, carrying it into Robbie’s room. The boy was asleep, his thumb still pointing toward his mouth. On top of his dresser sat the pine box car, caved toward a loose wheel like a cripple.  

A year later Robbie, now in third grade, brought home the square of pine, and James tackled it. He carved, he whittled, he drilled, he sanded. He took Robbie to a hobby shop and purchased weights and slick little wheels. “Can I paint it?” Robbie asked, watching. He didn’t ask about inviting his Dad.

Back in the all-purpose room, like some distorted purgatorial scene they were destined to re-enact, Leanna nodded mutely to the PTA mothers around her, the din of screams and banging chairs closing in on them like a wall. She would have preferred to skip the event, but Robbie seemed eager enough to go, curious, carrying the new car between thumb and forefinger. Again he was in the first line-up. Leanna, in spite of herself, got excited. At her side James was nervously and rapidly beating his spread fingertips together in a way she wanted to slap down. Robbie stood at the top of the track, just as he had done last year, his hand arched over his new car, shiny black with a red stripe down its pointed nose. The whistle blew, the boys let go, and zoom! Robbie’s car whizzed down the track, up and over and around and down and won.

“Leanna stared at the cars, assessing their value, their—cost.”

“It won! It won!” James bounced beside her.

Robbie was still at the top of the track, eyes wide. He moved with the others to the bottom, to its finish, receiving the hearty slaps on the back, the Cub-Master’s handshake and, later, after his car won the run-off race as well, the Pine Box Derby trophy. He joined the other boys in a grinning camaraderie of arms around shoulders, cars clutched in hands.  

Afterward, again at the ice cream parlor, he looked up expectantly as the chocolate sundae was delivered, but ate it as is. James, beaming, recounted the evening’s events, the several races, the speed of the “Vengeance,” as he had dubbed it. “Aren’t you proud?” he demanded, tapping his coffee spoon on the table to get Robbie’s attention.

Robbie shook his head yes and swallowed. To Leanna he said, “Can I call my Daddy and tell him the car won?” 

“Good grief.” James slouched back in the booth.

Leanna shot him a look. “Yes, of course,” she said to Robbie. “Maybe when we get home.” Bob, who still didn’t have a steady job as far as she knew, had picked up Robbie on several Sunday afternoons. Bob would wait at the curb, in a car Leanna didn’t recognize, until the boy ran across the lawn, often leaping with joy into his arms. James was annoyed. Why should the man have visiting privileges, he wanted to know, when he did nothing to support his child? Other times, Robbie would wait, his chin propped against the back of the chair next to the window until Leanna would encourage him away. She’d say his Dad was probably held up somewhere, that he probably couldn’t get to a phone to tell them.

“Why don’t you tell him the truth?” James had snapped.  

“Truth?” she had said. “Truth?” 

Now Robbie spooned his sundae with gusto, happy with his mother’s answer. “I’ll tell my Dad you worked on it,” he said to James. “That you made it win.”  

James snorted. “You have whipped cream on your nose,” he told Robbie. “Use your napkin.” He re-crossed his legs and turned toward the room, chin thrust out because he liked his profile, Leanna knew, waiting while she and Robbie tasted each other’s ice cream.

Again that night Leanna wandered the house, wine glass in hand, to stand at the bedside of the sleeping Robbie. He had placed the trophy on his dresser top. Flanking it on one side was the black and red racing car, snarlly and low, and, on the other, his old blue and orange car, high and boxy and lopsided.

Leanna stared at the cars, assessing their value, their—cost.   

Maybe she and Robbie could be happy. Maybe there was another option. How odd that the Pine Box Derby had enlightened her! She kissed the child goodnight, gently closing his door. It’d be her project this time, one she was determined to embark on, to win. 

Jackie Davis Martin’s stories have been published in anthologies, including Modern Shorts, Love on the Road, and Road Stories, as well as in print and online journals; prizes for fiction were awarded by New Millennium, On the Premises, and Press 53,  among others. A memoir about losing her daughter, Surviving Susan, was released in 2012 and her novel Stopgaps came out in May of 2021. She is currently at work on collecting her short stories, searching for the possible linkage. She teaches writing and literature at City College of San Francisco. When she is not writing or teaching, Martin has enjoyed, along with her late husband, Bruce , full seasons of San Francisco’s Opera, its Ballet, and its Symphony as well as performances at many of Bay Area’s many theatres.

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