parking meter

Sick Cars Make Your Buddy
More Interesting

W.P Osborn

We were marking our ninetieth day, Beth M. and I, with a daytrip. We observed how sunny it was, hoped there wouldn't be people, said we couldn't wait for the water, and had we remembered the lunch, the Sunday paper? It was thirty miles. We were using her Honda, taking the long way, a back road out past Lake Holcomb (ringed with granite cliffs; twinkling that day, and deep blue). In our first weeks the solitude of this route had made us feel adventuresome, brought us to a couple's interdependence.

The right front threw a tread. I blocked the rear wheels and changed it, but when I reversed the jack, the car kept lowering. I drove away with a farmer then, to fill the spare. When Beth pulled out again, this Chrysler came by -- big metallic-green thing that kept going after we were spun around and lost our front bumper.

She was perspiring, her complexion mottled, her hair frizzling damply down the back and sides of her neck. She wouldn't talk. Did I know what to tell her? I finally said this wasn't her best moment, but things couldn't get worse, therefore would have to get better. And we were off again. Beyond the dam, the road began taking switchbacks in its drop to the sea. Normally she was a moderate and thoughtful driver. What had happened, though, had turned her into a squealer of tires, a zoomer-ahead in the straights and, for the turns, a slammer-on of the brakes.

Well, they overheated. Or so I analyzed the problem when the pedal went to the floor and wouldn't pump back up. I was numb. We were going to fly past one of these verges like the one the front bumper had rattled over and sail out into space. But no, she drove the car instead into the cliff that angled down to the road on our right. It sounded like we were inside a steel trashcan.

When you fire an iron bar it will glow. Her ears were that red now. She slumped over the steering wheel. Gripped it. I could see the muscles in her hands. Her back, under the little cream-colored terrycloth beach robe, spasmed up and down.

I banged my door open. The right side of the car, I saw in my first moment outside, was lumps, creases, crushes. I reported to her on this, keeping my voice even, being sure not to over-detail. When she didn't answer, I told her that sometimes a body was more interesting for the scars it bore.

Her eyes were slits, her lips pulled back. She opened her door. I thought she was going to fly up, but she just got out. Wandered around awhile. Finally she bent over and lifted a rock from the shoulder. She brought this down through the windshield.

She had recent money in that car. Timing belt. Alternator. Vapor lock problem. Battery. Yet she squatted for more rocks. Raised them up. Banged them down.

After a while the car capitulated, i.e., the trunk opened and the hood popped. But she wouldn't let it. She used the toolkit in one on the motor under the other, wedging, jabbing things until she got a hose. The tire iron she jammed in the carburetor. By the time she crawled back inside, she was laughing so hard she could barely insert the key. The motor coughed, started. Rusty water leaked out. The fan picked up some of this and sprayed it. Most of it gushed to the pavement, though, and ran across, a brown stream, to the other side.

I was using my better judgment. I was heading home. The way was steep and for the sake of my legs and lungs and heart I had to stop. I happened to look over the cliff. I had a view of the car down there, and of Beth M., foreshortened. I could see her wadding something, or twisting -- my spare shirt, I realized -- using it to wipe the... No, she was doing something with the fill pipe.

It had been an ordinary relationship that hot morning we started down for the sea. I'd known, and so must she, that we were going to break it off, and that it wouldn't hurt much. But then I found out these new things. I don't know why I hadn't till then, I just hadn't. Maybe with more time, I don't know.

Flick-flick with her thumb and I watched her hold her arm out. As the black smoke came roiling up, I saw her back away. All this smoke, and I really wanted to help her, believe me, I did, I was ready.


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