SO HERE WE ARE, the toddler and I, washing the car for the big trip down to college. We call the toddler SpongeBob NoPants, for his great skills with car sponges and his propensity for dropping his pants at inopportune times, such as religious holidays or on the way into Dodger Stadium. Must've learned it from his mother.
"Missed a spot," I tell SpongeBob NoPants.
"Where?" he asks.
"Over there?" I say.
SpongeBob NoPants is a low-spot specialist. At 2 feet tall, he washes all the places on the car that I have difficulty reaching -- basically anything below my belly button. I do the roof and windows. He handles the rest. I constantly have to point out the places he misses on his mother's minivan. It is further evidence that you get what you pay for -- and sometimes not even that.
"SpongeBob?" I say.
"Yes?" he says.
"You missed over here," I say.
We are just two guys with a bucket and a hose, on a hot May day when wiser men are inside watching Ellen. But the minivan needs a good bath before we head off to this San Diego graduation. For once, we'd like to be at our very best.
"It's nice down there in San Diego," I tell the toddler.
"Kind of rural still," I explain. "But they have big dreams."
Honestly, in the four years our daughter's been there, we've grown to adore San Diego. Recently, they've had some financial problems. But you wouldn't know it from the outside. They have an impressive new stadium, and the downtown seems to be booming. Basically, I figure that San Diego is what L.A. was like in about 1911.
So we're washing the car like never before, in preparation for our last big trip down to this aspiring mecca. Meanwhile, my wife has purchased a Hawaiian lei for our graduating daughter. If you haven't noticed, today's graduates like to accessorize. They wear flowers around their necks and flashing lights on their goofy mortarboards. I've never gotten over the fact that, when someone completes a difficult course of study, we require them to wear the silliest hat of all time: a piece of cardboard affixed with a stripper's tassel.
"You'll look great in one of those," I tell SpongeBob NoPants.
"In 20 years," I say. "Don't worry, goes by fast."
After an hour of work, the car comes out white, which I'm guessing was its original color. After six years, it has faded to a bland shade that resembles the tips of your fingernails. It has survived carpools, road trips, camping excursions and Christmas tree deliveries. It has weathered snowfall, rainfall and the merciless California sun. Out here, cars don't so much wear out as cook themselves to death. The paint fades, the dashboard crumbles, the Gummi Bears in the ashtray get all gooey.
And it is the same vehicle we used to ferry our lovely and patient older daughter to school four years earlier. It looked better then. We all did.
"You weren't even around," I tell the toddler.
"You were just a gleam in your mother's eye," I explain.
"Your mother," I say. "You know her. Walks around like she owns the place."
I tell the toddler how, back then, we loaded this same minivan with his big sister's computer and her hair dryer, her CDs and her high school yearbook. Her perfume smelled like her shampoo, which smelled like her bubblegum, which smelled like her hair.
She sang the entire way down, my daughter did, probably some long forgotten Goo Goo Dolls hit. My heart broke as we left her standing at that big, bunker-like dorm. Scattering our kids around the country is a milestone I can do without. We left her there, seems like yesterday. Now my lovely older daughter is coming back, with a degree in her hip pocket and a passel of crazy new ideas.
We hope she'll come willingly. If not, we're prepared to do what we need to. I expect her move home to have all the raw emotion of a shotgun wedding.
"You missed a wheel," I tell the toddler.
"Oops," he says, then slaps a spot with the big soapy sponge.
"Um, that's my knee," I say.
"Oops," he says.
Next week: The graduation ceremony.
Chris Erskine can be reached at email@example.com.