Danger alerts sound outside: dogs bark, birds start a frantic twittering. Intruders pass -- a young mother with a stroller; a prissy little poodle, walked by a broad-shouldered man with a bald head. I don't look out the window, but I recognize the noise made by the three dogs at the side of our house -- mine and the neighbors' two -- and I imagine the morning brigade. Saturday in Brookside. I continue reading my paper, drinking my coffee, listening with half an ear to the soundtrack of my life.
I'm rushing myself a bit; I'm distracted by the knowledge that the number of coffee cups accumulated on the floor of my Saturn has started to effect my gas mileage, as has the heavy layer of road dirt on its exterior. I cannot think of any more excuses for avoiding this chore, so I'll grab a pair of jeans and my heavy shoes, and spend a half hour pumping quarters into the do-it-yourself car wash, holding the heavy wand with my right hand, babying my left wrist which still smarts from a recent sprain.
I used to take better care of my vehicles. My first car shone with endless rounds of wax that I rubbed into its British Racing Green surface. An MG Midget, in which I felt chic and fashionable. In a photograph album somewhere, in a box, in my basement, my eighteen-year-old self gazes out from its driver's seat. The top is folded back; the wind, doubtless, plays on my face. I wear shades in the picture, back in the days when I could still correct my vision with contact lenses -- the hard kind, for which one often had to search on one's hands and knees, on the tiled floor of the bathroom. In that decades-old snapshot, I have a bandanna tied over my tangle of long, curly hair and I wear a blue-jean jacket. I've got my arm dangling over the door, the other hand touching the steering wheel, and a broad smile widens my mouth.
The summer after my second year of college, I dated a police officer who worked second shift, ending his duty after eleven o'clock, when he would rap on my apartment door after parking his vehicle in the underground garage of my building. On one such night, he arrived well after midnight, and as I opened the door, he remarked, When I saw your car wasn't there, I figured you got tired of waiting and went out with somebody else. I shuddered as he spoke the words, and pushed past him, running down the interior stairwell, bursting through the garage entrance, standing, shocked, in front of my assigned space, in which I had parked my car earlier that evening.
My friend came up behind me, softly, putting his hand on my arm. I'll call it in, he said. I nodded, without speaking.
They found the car, stripped of its wiring, several miles from my apartment. My brothers installed a fuel-line kill switch when they replaced the wiring harness. Periodically, I would come down and discover it had been taken again. I would set out walking, dangling the keys, and find it a block or two away, the farthest it could be driven on the gas left in the line. Hot-wired, taken, and then abandoned.
I burned the clutch out on that MG three times before I finally gave it to my brother and bought a Chevy Nova from my cousin Angela. I took the Nova with me to Kansas City, when I moved here in 1980 for law school. The first summer, its carburetor rebelled and the car kept stalling; the guys at the Montgomery Ward Auto Center couldn't figure out what was wrong. I bought a carburetor rebuild kit and a Polaroid camera. I took the thing apart in the parking lot at the shopping center, piece by piece, photographing it as I went. Then I rebuilt it, using the line of pictures as my guide. When I finished, the vehicle started on the first try, and I wiped my hands, threw away the trash, and went home.
I sold that Nova for more than I had paid for it, and bought a big Oldsmobile which talked to me. The door is ajar, it said, in an insipid female voice. Fasten your seat belt, she admonished me. Oh, shut up, I took to telling her, before I figured out which fuse ran her and pulled it to silence her. The transmission went out on the Olds and she went for scrap, just before the accident which crushed my leg and netted me enough from my Uninsured Motorist provision to buy my first new car, a Nissan Sentra. I drove that little wagon until 1990, then gave it to a law student who worked for my firm in Fayetteville. I bought an old Audi with a sunroof until I drove until I returned to Kansas City to manage a Congressional campaign and had to dump the German car to appease the UAW contingent.
In the last decade, I've had three Buick Centuries, a small Saturn with manually operated windows, and a Chevy Blazer that introduced me to the world of SUV drivers, a world that just seems safer. Now I drive a Vue, and I'm hoping to get a sweet new Buick Enclave some day.
I can step through my life on the roofs of the cars that I have owned. I never expected to care about something so seemingly trivial, but I find that I am nostalgic for the little MG Midget with its classic lines and traditional paint job. I long to reclaim the casual air with which I shifted gears, as I accelerated into third on the highway between my mother's home in North St. Louis County and the dingy streets of the city where I lived. I have studied the face of the girl in the photo, her head thrown back, her eyes shielded but surely wild with laughter, her smile radiant. I do not know where she went, that girl; and I wonder what I have in common with her.
The house has assumed a deserted air with the departure of most of its human occupants. The cat yowls for water, no doubt standing on the edge of the sink in the downstairs bathroom. I tear my gaze back to the present, and swallow the last cold coffee. I rise from my chair, and the world shifts to a forward spin, while outside my home, the barking of my dog diminishes, and the startled birds fall silent.
Saturday, May 7, 2011
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The Missouri Mugwump™
- M. Corinne Corley
- I've been many things in my life: A child, a daughter, a friend; a wife, a mother, a lawyer and a pet-owner. I've given my best to many things and my worst to a few. I live in Brookside, in an airplane bungalow. I'm an eternal optimist and a sometime-poet. If I ever got a poem published in The New Yorker, I would die a happy woman. I'm a proud supporter of the Arts in Kansas City. I vote Democrat, fly the American flag, cry at Hallmark commercials, and recycle.
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