Three ~ A Suitable Car
just started his job on the Tuesday, the days off felt like a
holiday from a hard work week. He came home from his first full
day--if straightening his desk could be called a full day--and
sat on the couch for a few minutes until the slouch went beyond
his control. When he woke the apartment was dark. He'd slept three
hours, and the bread he'd put in the toaster for an evening snack
had taken on the consistency of Styrofoam and builder's glue.
saw a vast vista stretching before him. After so long unemployed--or
as he preferred to call it, underutilized--he should have been
accustomed to having several days off in a row, but the prospect
of waiting nearly a week before he returned to work was daunting.
Perhaps it was the darkness of the evening. He felt as if the
days were going to continue in the same vein until he left the
job, or more likely, was let go for incompetence. He pulled the
blankets up to his chin, so he could feel the bristle of his beginning
beard scratch on the edge of the fabric when he swallowed, and
thought about how to fill his time.
He was no
closer to an answer when he heaved himself out of bed, momentarily
forgetting, as his feet impacted the floor, the angry man next
door who never left his apartment and had made himself the self-appointed
noise patrol. To the tune of a few desultory knocks on the wall,
he went to the bathroom to see what a mess sleep had made of his
face. He often thought that he looked worse than regular people
when he woke up, as though he'd been pummeled in his sleep by
those he'd betrayed or left behind. His cheekbones were bruised
like a cage fighter, and his ears rang as he dipped his face in
the cold water which would contract his skin until he had an afternoon
His plan came
to him just as he was standing outside his local grocer contemplating
the closed sign. His circadian rhythm hadn't caught up with his
nap, so he'd brought a bundle of shopping bags as if he would
be able to stuff them with produce from the shop. He crammed the
plastic grocery bags into a recycling bin and shoved his hands
into his pockets. He felt suddenly at loose ends, and turned his
feet toward the all-night pizza place on the corner. He was halfway
through his second piece, the paper plates blowing around him
in the breeze bouncing off the downtown buildings, when a woman
who had been side-eying him struck up a conversation.
seen you eatin' here before."
that was possibly true, although he'd come by more often when
he first moved into the neighbourhood and then again when Karen
even look that hungry."
Her tone was
slightly accusatory, as though she'd lost control over the words
and they had piled into the local buildings and were reflected,
changed somehow from what she'd intended.
does someone have to be to eat pizza? he wondered. And
how is my hunger her interest? "Just wanted a snack," he said
"I was here
on Saturday when that kid got stabbed. There was blood all over
where you're standing."
at his feet but the shop proprietors had hosed down the pavement.
"Made you look," she said.
Sam was working his way through the crust and that made talking
more difficult. He wanted to extricate himself from the conversation
but he didn't know how. If he bought another piece of pizza she
would likely want to talk more, or ask him to buy her one, so
he tried to make his crust last while he thought about places
open late on a Tuesday where he could buy enough food to get him
through the night.
are always a possibility." Her accusatory tone made him focus
on the implications of her statement first. She seemed to suggest
that he hadn't thought it through, that somehow he'd both forgotten
one of the most logical options in his search as well as fancied
himself somehow above the lowly corner store. She acted as though
he was having a racist reaction to the recent immigrant proprietors,
and she was issuing a corrective.
while he thought about what she implied, and only then did he
realize she was responding to what he'd been thinking, not what
he'd said aloud. The building to her right began to bend and he
thought he might be dreaming.
in pinching yourself now." She looked at her fingernails contemplatively
and Sam noticed for the first time that they were dark red.
"How are you
doing this?" His vision was narrowing, as if he were having a
stroke or a migraine. His fingertips felt numb and the back of
his thighs ached, as though his posture had suddenly become uncomfortable
after a lifetime of slouching on city streets.
you, crazy? Doing what?"
at her again, and once she pulled another dollar from her purse--which
was absurdly shaped like a fat hand--she went into the pizza shop.
He saw the opportunity. In the moment it took her to exchange
money for food he could have fled. He pictured his route, as though
he were observing himself from above and his path was outlined
in red. He could sprint around the building, and then pass the
corner before she could see him go. He was still thinking about
that when she came outside and walked past him like she hadn't
just freaked him out. He watched her discard her paper plate into
a city trash bin. In the gloom her elbow cut out and up, as she
fed herself the last of the pizza.
She was young,
he convinced himself. There was nothing more mystical in the interaction
than a young woman who spoke cryptically--probably did it all
the time in an attempt to excite attention--and who was at ease
speaking with, or at least at, strangers.
he was wide awake, and his vision had cleared. He began to contemplate
crossing the city. It could not be any more than a few hour's
walk, and he had enough time before daybreak to see the traffic
on the far western bridge as the cars rose above the horizon and
that everyone was living with a sleep debt, and on the second
night of his forced vacation, he could feel the creditors at the
door. He dropped in the bed as soon as his day of lounging around
the house ended, as much to avoid the cryptic young woman as anything
else, and he was broken from his sleep by the rumble of trucks
on the main road. His fantasy that he was living in the countryside
or some apocalyptic wasteland was ruined as huge trucks carrying
gravel or cement to fill in holes thundered past on the main road.
They would hit the deep ruts that their work or neglect had made
and his entire neighbourhood would shudder. The building would
tremble as though a bomb had made a crater out of the tarmac and
he woke with the sensation that someone was insistently trying
to shake him awake.
He woke well
after noon, and cleaned out the last of the bread lingering in
the back of his freezer by combining it with peanut butter and
some relish. There was something freeing about emptying a fridge.
He debated where to go. He'd heard the mountains were still under
a thick blanket of snow, but he didn't want to test that by actually
as a sloth, he stood by the window for long minutes before he
decided to be social. The lakefront was breezy, but the two-hour
drive from the city had thoroughly warmed the car, so he didn't
feel the stiff breeze when he first walked along the beach. He
expected the running children of summer, but the late fall was
blowing the leaves from all but the most stubborn trees, and even
the elms were angular and gaunt. The sand along the shore was
littered with flat pieces of limestone. By the clacking under
his feet he thought they sounded brittle, but when he tried breaking
one it was stronger than steel.
a sparrow flew out of the bushes near the lake and disappeared
far out from shore did he discover the loneliness of the place,
the distant horizon a Euclidian line, the nearby trees uprooted
and crowded with chaotic bushes and roadside weeds. He was the
only person on the beach, and he could see for several miles.
He started to worry about his car. Perhaps the people from the
nearby park had seen it parked in off-season and called the police.
They might be--even as he was walking and enjoying the day--hitching
cables to his bumper and tearing off the plastic which the dealership
said would save him in the case of an accident.
trip was quicker, and by the time he started the car he'd forgotten
his fears. The steering wheel was steady beneath his fingers and
his gaze was firmly on the white line. Near where the road crawled
with snakes he slowed down, but the road was empty. He was nearly
in the city when the road began to judder familiarly beneath him
and an east wind began to blow in the first few flakes of the
season. The chattering radio told him winter was coming early,
and the DJs nattered meaninglessly at one another about Christmas
and duck-hunting in a slough.
He was near
his old school, so he cruised through a few of the streets he'd
bicycled as a boy. Large elms had been cut down, and he was reminded
of the uprooted trees along the shore. The ebb and flow of human
desire had sawn down the elms just as surely as the storms on
the lake had torn the cottonwoods out by the roots. He pulled
into a Chinese restaurant and was just about to order when a woman
with strangely familiar features went to the counter, and then,
glancing at him and raising her eyebrows, she sat across from
his glance of recognition.
"You are Tom,
or John. Some short male name."
Long time, no see."
He was tempted
to tell her the expression was originally Chinese and had been
directly translated into English, hence the strange syntax, but
although the words nearly tipped from his tongue, he said nothing.
When he didn't know what to say his strategy was to retreat into
obscure facts, as if he were a Rollo deck of trivia, but he'd
been told often enough that people weren't interested. The encyclopaedia
trick was a good strategy for job interviews, but undermined social
interactions. He asked her what she'd been doing.
Job, married, kids, divorce, remarriage, lymphoma, and fired,
and then new job."
If he had
to sum up his life in a few words he wouldn't be able to do it.
She'd always been succinct. "I can't say I've done that much,"
he said before he thought about the loss of work and illness.
"You look good." He meant it, for she had aged better than him.
No wrinkles and only a few strands of gray.
We age well. Better than most."
an equivalent expression for whites?" He was genuinely curious.
you ordering?" He was conscious of his receding hairline.
I call it Chow Mean, because of her." She pointed to the owner
who was scooping noodles out of a pot of boiling water, rubbing
at her glasses at the same time with the back of her hand. "She
can be friendly, if she wants to be, but snake mean sometimes.
"I never ate
a lot, you would have seen me?"
like that. Ever marry?"
close a couple of times. How did that work out for you?" Too late
he remembered her list. "I mean--"
marriage is the better one. The first marriage was for love and
family, just so they got the wedding they wanted, big cake show-off
to the cousins from out of town, but the second marriage was for
us. We used the money we saved, just a small ceremony in the yard,
and went to Mexico."
I was wondering about--"
your takeaway." The owner slammed the food on the table hard enough
to burst a plum sauce packet and an orange juice began to bleed
through the paper bag. Her gesture indicated that Shelly was taking
up a valuable restaurant seat, and Sam looked pointedly at the
bother." Shelly shook her head.
was merciful, for he was going to ask about people they'd attended
school with, and such conversations were always a mix of surprised
despair and despairing surprise. "You take care," he said as she
gathered her bags. "Never know who you're going to see."
"I was expecting
I'd run into you sometime," she said. "Not surprised."
away his questioning look and while he debated the wisdom of running
after her for an explanation--which she very likely would not
be able to provide--his slammed-down plate arrived. The brownish
sauce had mixed into the noodles and if someone said there were
mushrooms in the mushroom plate he would have been surprised.
let Shelly's comment go, and he spent long hours that evening
looking through her profile on Facebook for a clue. Her life was
closed, and beyond a few pictures of her kids on the lawn, some
selfies with her husband, and parents who were more brittle than
he remembered, she kept her life to herself.
The only thing
that she posted, and it happened while he was stalking her page,
was that she was selling her father's old car. It was a 1975 Impala,
and that was enough for Sam to send her a message. His neighbour
had owned a Ford of a similar vintage, and Sam had often looked
longingly over the fence. This might be his only chance. He didn't
really remember such cars when they first came out, although there
were plenty of them around when he was young. Most people who
buy vintage cars were old men, he knew, for they wanted to recapture
something of their nearly forgotten youth. Sam had heard the long
seventies monsters referred to as prairie boats, and land-locked
as he was, he'd always dreamed of owning one.
immediately, and even in the message he could hear her gently
mocking tone. "So there you are again," she said. "Sure. Come
by on Friday and bring two thousand and we'll make it happen."
another sleepless few nights while he waited, but that was not
the case. He exhausted himself trying to sell his car as soon
as possible, and the unaccustomed walking took him aching and
exhausted to his bed every night. His right foot was beginning
to throb, but he knew once he was driving one of the gas-guzzlers
of the past it would go away. He took his friend's daughter with
him for the purchase. Miriam was interested in motor vehicle maintenance,
and often said--to her father's dismay--that she wanted to be
an unlikely pair as they walked up to the type of house he would
have expected if he'd thought about it, and Shelly answered the
door. Her husband came to the door as well, and although he made
noises like he recognized him, Sam didn't. Miriam was already
examining the long-bodied car, and she asked if she could open
the hood by gesture, since the nearby construction drowned out
any possibility they would be able to hear her from the yard.
Sam nodded. The car was his now, and he tossed Miriam the keys
while he sat with Shelly and transferred the ownership.
on it now. I cancelled this morning."
right over," Sam told her. "Leave the car in the yard for a bit
while I get it done."
the subtext, but he hadn't planned to drive it illegally anyway.
While they counted money and he checked the registration, he could
hear Miriam exclaiming over the tool kit they were letting go
with the car, and how the dash was like an airplane. "You even
been in an airplane?" His yell was lost in the clanging of huge
boulders into a metal-bodied truck.
the noise. They've been at it for a month. Expanding the highway,
like we need that. They say the boulders had to be shipped in,
and that once they get them laid the road won't heave."
at the claim, and once everyone was signed and the money tucked
away in Shelly's purse, they shook hands awkwardly. Miriam was
done with her examination and she was standing to one side, so
Sam introduced her. "My mechanic," he told them, and Miriam stood
a little straighter. They shook her hand and asked her what she
thought of the car. She blushed but answered them honestly, and
Sam could see the mechanic she would become.
She went with
him to finish the paperwork, and when she asked questions he realized
she'd never seen the purchase of a car from start to finish. "You'll
be in this situation too in a few years," he reminded her.
Grandpa will likely buy me a car. They did my sisters."
"In that case,
it's even easier."
around, making huge circles while Sam looked for a parking lot
that was big and empty enough that Miriam could drive. Once they
were in the lot, he put the car in park, and told her it was her
turn. "Now this isn't legal, so you take it real easy."
She ran around
the hood to get to the driver's seat almost before Sam could slide
over the hump in the middle of the bench seat.
her through the pedals once they had moved the seat forward, and
before long she was circling the vast parking lot of the old linen
factory. She was alert to the car's mood, as it coughed a few
times when she was too abrupt on the gas pedal, and before long
her back relaxed and her hands on the steering wheel loosened.
about what she could have done better all the way home, and listened
eagerly for feedback. She watched his driving like a hawk, and
was alert for the slightest hesitation or missed moment in traffic.
He told her what his biker friend always said. "Always look at
the road ahead of you. Don't worry about what's behind. It's from
ahead that the problems will come."
as he dropped her off, and he saw her waving to him from the family
porch in his rear-view mirror. He needed to spend more time with
kids, he realized. He'd always put off having children, for he
thought the world was overpopulated, but now that it was becoming
too late, he was starting to think about what he'd missed. He'd
always said he could adopt, and he'd discussed that with Karen.
She was enamoured with her own genes, but that didn't matter to
him. the car coughed at the thought.