Barry Pomeroy Main Page
Back to main page Me on my boat, the Whimsey

Click to see the cover in more detail
Buy the Ebook
Buy the Paperback
Table of Contents
Read the First Chapter
Google Plus View Barry Pomeroy's LinkedIn profile

Life at Sea: Landlocked

Chapter Three ~ A Suitable Car

Although he'd 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.

He suddenly 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 look.

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.

"I've never seen you eatin' here before."

He nodded that was possibly true, although he'd come by more often when he first moved into the neighbourhood and then again when Karen left him.

"You don't 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.

How hungry does someone have to be to eat pizza? he wondered. And how is my hunger her interest? "Just wanted a snack," he said finally.

"I was here on Saturday when that kid got stabbed. There was blood all over where you're standing."

Sam glanced at his feet but the shop proprietors had hosed down the pavement. "Made you look," she said.

"You did." 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.

"Corner stores 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.

He paused 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.

"No point 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.

"What are you, crazy? Doing what?"

He looked 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.

Unaccountably, 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 then disappeared.

He'd heard 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 going there.

As somnolent 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.

Only when 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.

His return 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.

"Shelly, right?"

"You are Tom, or John. Some short male name."

"Close enough. Sam."

"Twenty years? 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.

"The usual. 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.

"Asian don't raisin."


"An expression. We age well. Better than most."

"Is there an equivalent expression for whites?" He was genuinely curious.

"Never heard one."

"What are you ordering?" He was conscious of his receding hairline.

"Chow Mein. 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. Moody."

"I never ate here before."

"I guessed that."

"You here a lot, you would have seen me?"

"Something like that. Ever marry?"

"Naw, came close a couple of times. How did that work out for you?" Too late he remembered her list. "I mean--"

"The second 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."

"Good idea. I was wondering about--"

"You have 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 empty room.

"Don't even bother." Shelly shook her head.

The interruption 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."

She waved 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.

He couldn't 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.

Shelly responded 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."

He imagined 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 a mechanic.

They made 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.

"No insurance on it now. I cancelled this morning."

"I'll head right over," Sam told her. "Leave the car in the yard for a bit while I get it done."

He'd heard 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.

"Sorry about 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."

They laughed 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.

"Granny and Grandpa will likely buy me a car. They did my sisters."

"In that case, it's even easier."

They drove 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.

He coached 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.

She talked 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."

She nodded 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.

Contact Barry Pomeroy