King of the Road

Folding his hands behind his head, Jack leaned back in his chair, swiveling absentmindedly side to side as he talked, trying to recount all the details.

When you’re young and stupid, there can be a fine line between a woman and your car as to who might truly be considered your first love.  There are also a lot of reckless mistakes that come before you finally figure it all out. My personal lesson began one autumn night in the early 80s, after I flipped my dad’s Honda Civic over on its roof. I learned to drive on that thing, stick and all.  It looked like a bright white slice of Wonder Bread on tires and when I went to take my road test, the driving inspector frowned when he got in, barely fitting into the seat.  He yelled at me the whole time, accusing me of riding the clutch, but it was just my muddy work boots, blocking his view of those tiny Japanese pedals!  

She laughed at that, and he hoped it would happen again.

Anyway, I was going too fast around a corner that night and I hit a patch of wet leaves. The car went up the curb but those little tires and the puny suspension weren’t enough to absorb a mere 4 inches of concrete, so I bottomed out and launched the car over on its roof. My mom always said it was a miracle I didn’t die that day and that my guardian angel was definitely working overtime.  My parents insisted after the accident, that if I was ever going to own my own car as a teenager, then I would have to buy it with my own money. Their theory was that I’d be a lot less reckless if I paid for it myself rather than driving around in one of their cars, for which I had no skin in the game.  That’s what started my quest for a car of my own and I wanted it to be something far cooler than a tiny little Honda Civic that couldn’t even handle a fast curve. 

She shifted and sat cross legged in the chair, covering her legs with the blanket and picking up her tea.

“You sure you’re up for this?” he asked.  She shook her head no but her grin said yes, so he continued.

I had been working two jobs like a dog for three dollars and thirty-seven cents an hour at a garden center and an old Radio Shack store, (and I counted every dime) saving up my money week after week, clinging to the dream.  My mom dropped me off at the little library in town on my night off.  It wasn’t as nice as the one you love here in the village, but I had developed a friendship with the librarian named Marianne and I enjoyed my visits with her.  There was a weekly newspaper that came out at the time and it was something like the Penny Saver except that you had to buy it. I didn’t want to spend the money so she would save it for me behind the desk and when I came in every week I’d sit at the table across from her and look at all the ads for cars.  Because I was in high school in the 80s a lot of the classic muscle cars from the late 60s and 70s were being sold at a really good price for a high school student with limited funds. They needed a lot of work since they were between ten and fifteen years old, but I was good with cars, so that didn't bother me. Week after week I’d spend an hour or two, drooling over the ads, imagining owning one myself.  Several of the guys at school had typical muscle cars like, Camaros, or Mustangs and GTOs but I wanted no part of that mold.  I hated the idea of being glommed in with a bunch of guys I felt were just strutting their feathers, each one trying to look better than the next.  I was looking for something different.. something that exuded my idea of freedom.  

I was obsessed for weeks and I called so many different people about so many different cars that my head was spinning. I went out and looked at some of them in person, but didn’t like a single one.  They were all pretty unimpressive up close, sometimes way less interesting than the ad described or too expensive for what was being offered. I’d sit in each car with my hands on the wheel and it just didn’t feel like me.  I kept moving on in disgust and my parents were beginning to wonder if I’d just give up on the whole idea.  When you’re seventeen years old and the only phone in the house is hanging on the wall with a very short cord and you had to sit at the kitchen table and call all these strangers with everyone around you listening, it was easy to understand how they might think so.  I wasn’t very good at hiding my frustration, but I was a bull dog when I’d made up my mind about something,  and I wouldn’t let it go.  

"Still am," he interjected with a grin.

Finally, one ordinary summer night, I walked in the front door of the brick building and Marianne handed me the paper in our usual weekly ritual. I took it to a quiet corner of the library with a cup of coffee from the thermos on her desk but stopped just a minute first to joke with her.  She laughed easily and asked if she’d get a phone call from my parents after I’d been up all night.  I said, “Sure, yeah, you will and it will be a thank you because I finally finished my homework for a change.”  I laid the paper on the table and opened it up to the classifieds but I had been looking for so many months, that I was scanning only half-heartedly. The night was beautiful, crickets chirping, fireflies dancing around in the dark and I wasn’t really in the mood to be inside.  But I didn’t like the thought that I might be missing something in that paper either.

I found an ad for a 1971 Oldsmobile Cutlass Supreme that night.  It was a convertible with manual transmission and I remember thinking, “Wow.. now, that looks interesting!” Since, I was at the library anyway, I immediately went to the card catalogue and tried to find references for the Olds, in some car books. As luck would have it, there were several.  I pulled them off the shelves and brought them back to the table, rifling through them looking for pictures and information, and after poring over them for some time, I thought, Hmm… I wonder…

My heart started to race but I was definitely playing it cool. I would usually go to the library at the end of the week, a day or two before the new issue of the paper was coming out which was good because Marianne never minded if I tore ads out of it, but also bad, because, a lot of times, all the good cars were unavailable.  I’d get my hopes up and call, feeling all excited about one of them, and it would already be gone, having sold early in the week.  I wasn’t willing to get too excited about this just yet.  I asked Marianne if I could use the phone and I called the owner and discovered that he was way out in the middle of nowhere in an area I knew little about. But he told me that car was still available and I could come out and look at it if I wanted to. NOW I was excited.  I tore up to the desk to show it to Marianne and she hugged me and wished me luck, calling out and shaking her head as I ran out the door with a wave, forgetting my bag on the chair.

I was quiet on the way home that night, working up my argument. Every night we had dinner together as a family and that one day a week after looking through the paper I’d come home from the library and I would bring up the car thing. In the beginning, I was all excited and animated about whatever new car I found in the newspaper that week and talked incessantly about it, begging them to take me to see it.  There would be a lot of rolling of the eyes, and exasperated questioning: Are you sure about this one, son?  Is it really something worth seeing?  We went through the whole ritual again at the table, until I finally convinced my dad to take me.  

I knew it was 40 minutes from our house and that the roads out there were poorly marked with no house numbers. Back then, we didn't have GPS or cell phones so I had to rely on the assumption that the person on the other end was giving me decent directions or at least some easily recognizable landmarks. After a few times getting seriously lost,  I learned to get all my maps out beforehand and trace the whole route out carefully.  We planned a trip for that Saturday morning and I brought a pocket full of cash because that’s just the way things were done.  If you were smart, you took your dad or your best friend with you to cover your back. With a thousand dollars in your pocket, you didn’t want to be alone with an axe murderer who was planning to mug you, take all your money and leave you for dead.

The car was at a farm with a barn out back and a dilapidated old farmhouse close to the road. You could tell they worked on the farm, not the house, and when we pulled in, sure enough there was this metallic gold Oldsmobile sitting there, right out front.  From a distance it looked fantastic and I was jumpin’ out of my seat yelling at my dad, “Come on let’s go, this is gonna be awesome!” But as we drove closer and pulled up beside it, dad's face grew more concerned.  You could see up close what you couldn’t see from afar.. it was definitely a fixer upper.  The top was shaggy and falling apart and it was leaking. The body had some rust on it in places but it was in relatively good shape. On the inside, the seats were okay but the stitching was coming out. It was like an old favorite pair of jeans where the denim was worn, but intact.  The seams were beginning to tear and needed to be re-sewn.  The carpet was a mess and it smelled nasty.  It needed a whole new set of tires.  But I got in that thing, and started it up and put the top down, and when I looked up, I could see blue sky and clouds and feel the breeze on my face.

After that, it was all over. I was already mentally ticking off everything this car needed from me and deciding whether or not I could give it to her. I looked over at my father and when he saw the expression on my face, he just shook his head and smiled.  I think he knew right then, that this was it… this was my car.  It didn’t even matter what the negotiations were as long as they ended up with me behind the wheel, driving toward home.  The guy could have every dollar in my pocket. I paid cash on the spot for it and that was the start of the long journey to fix her up right.

On the drive home that day, I felt it all, every bit of it; the sky over my head and the sleek lines of her body became a part of me forever.  I didn’t care too much about her color.  I knew I could change that.  She had to be red.  She had two bucket seats and you sat down low, especially for a big car like that and you looked out over her long hood that just came up like a runway at an airport. It had a couple of lines in it.. creases in the metal that went the full length of the hood so it seemed like a runway.. like you could launch it off a carrier or something.  This heavy chrome Hurst shifter came up out of the floorboards between the two bucket seats and because it sat a little far forward, it was curved like a boomerang. It came out of the floor straight, had a gentle curve to it and then came out straight again into this metal T-shifter that you wrapped your hand around.  The cold, sturdy metal made you feel like you were in command of the space shuttle or something.  It was amazing! It had a huge amount of power because it had a rocket 350 V-8 and it made a low burbling sound.. a deep rumbling grumble.   

He paused then, wondering if she was bored. She was leaning forward in her chair, hands cupping her mug of tea, steam curling into the air invitingly.  She was listening intently without a word, seeming to enjoy the details.. so he went on with his thoughts.

In my teenage brain I likened it to dating a supermodel, I guess. The car itself got a lot of attention when I was out, which I loved. She was fun to be in.. and to be around, but she had temper tantrums and was moody and high maintenance. And the only thing that tempered all that, was the fact that she was just so damn beautiful.  I worked on her that long hot summer and it took up all my free time. By the time school came around again, I was raring to go.  Our bus stop had a couple of guys and a few cute girls who waited at the corner and I decided to show off a little. I pulled up with a grin, sunglasses on, top down, full of attitude and they begged me to give them a ride.  After that, we followed the same routine almost every morning.  I’d pull up, a bunch of kids would pile in the car, we’d blast some music and off we’d go, headed for high school. If I missed a day, I never heard the end of it.  I was king of the road!  It was a great senior year and I never wanted it to end.

“I guess I’d pick that day, Izzy.  The day I picked up that car.”

Isabel was quiet for some time, staring at the photograph before finally admitting she couldn’t decide either.. Annie… or the sexy metallic gold ’71 Olds Cutlass Supreme.  Handing it back, she promised with a wink that she would sleep on it and get back to him in the morning. By now it was well after midnight and they both yawned in sync.  She stood up, thanking him for sharing such a wonderful part of his past with her and because it was so late, she offered to let him stay in the cabin next door, which was also owned by the man she was renting from.  There was an acre between the two properties and she explained that she usually just paid for both of them so that she had complete privacy and could invite friends up to visit for the weekend if she wished.  

He felt rather glad as he walked slowly up the road to the cabin by himself, that he had unwittingly managed to become one of them. And she stood at the window watching him go, already knowing her answer.

It would always be Annie.