Cutlass 442

Linda Saldaña

Darryl strolled in whistling.

Cass put down her crossword and accepted a peck on the cheek. Her eyes tracked his progress around the room. “You’re late,” she said. “I waited dinner for you but I finally went ahead and ate.” She tried to keep the accusation out of her voice because she didn’t want to be that kind of wife—not after only a year, anyway. “Where you been?”

drawing of Cutlass 442

Darryl’s whistle trailed off. “Oh, just running a little errand.” His tone made her get up from the couch and follow him into the bedroom. He unknotted his tie and flung it in the general direction of the bed. The blue shirt followed. He opened a drawer and grabbed the first tee-shirt his hand touched, slipping it over his head in one continuous motion.

Cass, standing in the doorway, marveled about how Darryl could dress with so little contemplation and still manage to look so good.

He smiled as his head emerged from the neck hole. “Got a cold one chilling for me?”

Cass left without responding and returned with a bottle of beer.

Darryl had swapped his khakis for jeans. “What? I don’t get a glass?”

“A glass? You always drink straight from the bottle.”

“Maybe I’ve got a surprise for you,” said Darryl. “Maybe it’s worth getting me a glass to find out what.”

Cass left and returned with a glass.

“Where’s yours?” he said. “How are we going to toast with just one glass?”

Cass sighed, but went to fetch another glass. “OK,” she said. “Tell me what you’re up to.”

Darryl poured some beer into the second glass and motioned for her to follow. He led her to the bay window that looked from their apartment onto the street two floors below. “Close your eyes,” he said, “and don’t open them until I say.” He paused for a moment, then drew open the drapes.

All Cass could see was the row of apartments across the street, an old lady dragging a balding terrier away from a hydrant, and a big, red sedan parked in the middle of the sidewalk below. She was irritated that someone would park there, right in front of the No Parking sign. Then she understood. “You didn’t buy yourself another car, did you, Darryl?”

“Listen to you!” said Darryl. “Why would I need another car? I bought it for you, SugarBabe.”

Cass pressed her forehead against the window to get a better look. She wasn’t much of an expert when it came to cars. All she saw was a long, low, vehicle with a gleaming chrome grill and headlights like four matched diamonds.

Darryl rattled off the stats: “She’s a ‘72 Oldsmobile Cutlass 442. You know what that means, don’t you? 442?” He paused for a moment, waiting. “No, of course you don’t. It means four-barrel, four-speed, dual exhaust! Check out the mag wheels!”

“Darryl,” said Cass. “That car’s older than you are.”

“It’s a classic.”

“What kind of mileage does it get?” Cass asked.

“Jeez! Listen to you!” said Darryl. “I buy you something special and all you can do is say what’s wrong with it. Good thing you didn’t do that with your ring!”

Cass twisted her wedding band self-consciously. Ever since her mother had remarked that her ring had a unique dime store quality, she had been vaguely dissatisfied with it, something she barely admitted to herself. She looked at the car again and tried to love it. “It’s a real pretty color,” she offered, sensing his disappointment. She clinked her beer glass against his for emphasis. “I like it fine. Let’s go take a look.”

A knot of onlookers had gathered around the car by the time they reached the sidewalk.

“That your car, Darryl?” said their landlady, Mrs. Thompson. “You can’t be parking it there, blocking the sidewalk like that.”

“Maybe you’d like a ride in her when I get her fixed up, ma’am,” offered Darryl. “These Cutlii purr like kittens.”

“What do you mean, ‘get her fixed up’?” asked Cass. “Doesn’t she purr like a kitten now?”

Darryl swung open the door and closed it. “Hear that? Solid!” He opened it again. “Climb in! Check ‘er out!”

Cass slid behind the steering wheel and examined the frayed leather seats and peeling faux wood paneling. She fingered the winter-pine air freshener that dangled off the mirror. She twizzled the knobs. “Does the radio work?” she asked.

“Roger, that,” said Darryl. “I know how you like your music.”

Cass fondled the gear shift and frowned. “Why’d you get a manual? You know I can only drive automatic.”

“No big deal. I’ll teach you.”

Mrs. Thompson leaned down to peer in. “You’re gonna have to get yourself a phonebook so you can see over the dashboard,” she said.

“Yeah, but check out the back seat,” said Darryl with a wicked grin. “Nice and roomy!”

“Big enough to ferry around a whole family,” Cass said wistfully.

“Or to start one!” said Darryl.

Mrs. Thompson snorted and backed away. “Don’t do anything disgusting while it’s on the sidewalk, OK?”

Cass maneuvered around gear shift and settled into the passenger seat. “Let’s take her for a ride.”

Darryl sniffed and hitched his jeans. “Well, that’s the catch,” he said. “She’s not exactly in running order right this minute. I had to have her towed in.”

Darryl’s twin brother Dan came over later to help roll the car into a parking spot that had opened up across the street. Through the window, Cass could hear the easy drift of their conversation as they tinkered with the engine.

“You got it for how much? That’s a steal!”

“You should have seen the old man’s face when he realized who he’d sold it to…”

“Wish I coulda been there.”

“No you don’t!”

Cass padded to the kitchen and opened the refrigerator. “You want a Coke or something?”

Dan’s wife Arlene was fully reclined in Darryl’s favorite chair. “Nah,” she said. “I’m off chemicals for the duration.” Arlene was eight months pregnant and her feet were beginning to swell. Dan, who was ten minutes older than Darryl, took special pride in being the first in everything—the first to make Varsity, the first to wed, and now the first to spawn. And Darryl never said so, but Cass knew without asking: Darryl hated being second.

Cass gazed down at the brothers. “Don’t you think that was thoughtful of Darryl to get me the car? It’s not what I would have picked out. But it was nice of him all the same.”

Arlene stayed unusually silent for someone who was generally so generous with her opinions.

“It’s kind of big for me and all,” Cass continued, “but the red is pretty.” Cass still wasn’t getting a response, so she switched to a topic that was more to Arlene’s liking. “You guys got a name picked out yet?”

Arlene brightened. “Daniel, or course!” she said. “The Third.”

“What if it’s a girl? I thought you told me the ultrasound results were unclear.”

“Oh, it’ll be a boy, alright,” said Arlene, speaking directly to her stomach, “’Cause if it isn’t, we’re gonna be doing this all over again until we get it right, and I sure don’t want to face this ordeal again for a while.”

“Maybe I should name the car,” said Cass. “That might help me warm up to it.”

Arlene fiddled with the buttons on her maternity smock. “Yeah? What were you thinking of?”

“I don’t know. How about Valentine? I could get special license plates.”

“I don’t think Darryl will go for that. I’d guess that it already has a name.”

Cass frowned. Sometimes Arlene could be such a know-it-all—which was especially annoying in her current inflated state. “Who says I can’t change it. It’s supposed to be my car,” said Cass. “Darryl bought it for me.”

Arlene rearranged herself on the recliner. “Trust me on this, OK? He’s not going to want to rename it.” She rubbed her belly affectionately. “I probably shouldn’t be telling you this, but that car has history.”

“History?”

That’s all I’m going to say.”

Cass narrowed her eyes. “No it’s not. You do not have the right to keep secrets from me, so out with it.”

“You have to promise not to tell Darryl or Dan I told you this, OK?”

“OK.”

“Swear it!”

“I swear.”

“That car’s name is Jezebel.” Arlene lips twitched into a semblance of a smile.

“That’s what I’m swearing about?”

“It used to belong to Monica Costello.”

“And?”

“So Darryl’s never talked about her?”

Cass tried not to sound shrill. “Should he have?”

“Well… she and Darryl were – how shall I put it – they were an ‘item’ back in high school.”

“Darryl bought me a car that used to belong to his old girlfriend?”

Arlene shifted her weight carefully. “I recognized Jezebel as soon as I saw her. That car turned heads—especially the way she drove it. Rich girl from out on the Peninsula—out to prove she was bad-ass like the rest of us.” Arlene lowered her voice. “Darryl used to joke that he might have to marry Monica to get her car. But you didn’t hear that here. In fact—if you remember your promise—you didn’t hear it at all.”

“Oh thanks! What am I supposed to do with all this unexpected wisdom?” Cass stared out the window again. The brothers were leaning against the car smoking, their laughter punctuating the darkness. She turned back to Arlene, resenting the privileged information that her sister-in-law spooned out in bitter mouthfuls.

“So where is she now?”

Arlene shook her head. “Monica? She left school mid-term senior year…and you know what that usually means.”

Cass frowned. “Was it Darryl?”

“My lips are sealed,” said Arlene. “I have said more than I shoulda and all that I’m gonna.”

Cass woke up in the middle of the night thinking about Monica Costello driving around in a lipstick red Cutlass named Jezebel, her stylish auburn hair blown by the breeze, her long fingernails tapping in time to the blaring radio. She was laughing with perfect white teeth and shiny lips. The hand on her knee was connected to Darryl.

Cass slipped out of bed and went to the hall closet. It was full of boxes, but large enough that she could slide in sideways. The carton with the yearbooks was in the back, under the box of clothes that Cass had outgrown but wasn’t ready to toss.

Monica Costello, on page 43, was a freckled brunette with wild curly hair and a crooked grin. She had signed diagonally across the bottom of her junior year picture: “SugarBabe XXX”

The light flickered a couple of times. “What’cha doing in the closet?” Darryl was blinking in the glare of the overhead bulb.

Cass slammed the yearbook shut and stuffed it back into the box.

“Nothing,” she said, and then deciding that sounded lame, added, “I couldn’t sleep so I thought I’d look for something to read.”

She shuffled back to the bedroom and lay down again. She thought about Monica Costello in her lipstick red Cutlass, her wild curly hair being straightened by the breeze. She thought about Darryl’s hand fumbling with Monica’s bra strap.

Darryl rolled over and nudged her. “I know something that’ll help you sleep,” he said.

“Not now,” said Cass. “I’m thinking.”

“Dangerous sport. Don’t hurt yourself.” He was silent for a moment and then he said, “About what?”

“About the car. I want to name it.”

“Yeah? You got something picked out?”

“I want to name it Jezebel.”

Darryl’s breaths were measured. “Huh,” he said.

An hour later, Cass could tell that—even though he hadn’t moved a muscle—Darryl was still awake. Otherwise, he’d be snoring.

Dan and Arlene paid a visit the following week. By that time, Jezebel had accumulated a sizeable collection of parking tickets, and Darryl had figured out a way to fix her.

“Let’s take Jezebel for a spin,” he said. “We can go for pizza.”

“You’re calling her Jezebel?” said Dan, surprised. Cass caught that exclusionary look between brothers.

“Cass picked it,” said Darryl. “Kinda catchy, don’t you think?”

“Kind of sexist in my opinion,” said Arlene huffily, “and not that original.” Cass avoided Arlene’s eyes, even though, technically—by a strict interpretation of the rules—she had not broken her promise. She sank into the passenger seat and watched Darryl drive, the master of the smooth shift and the one-fingered turn. She watched him parallel park like a pro. She watched him toss up the keys and catch them midair.

On the way home, she said as casually as she could, “Funny thing happened today. I was looking for my wallet—thought I’d lost it in the car. And some guy drives by and says ‘Hey there, Monica! Still looking good!’ Isn’t that funny?”

Everything froze. Arlene’s mouth clamped shut and Dan and Darryl avoided making eye contact.

“Huh,” said Darryl at last.

“Wasn’t there a girl named Monica who drove a car sort of like this?” said Arlene.

“Oh, yeah,” said Dan carefully. “Kind of a mousy brown-haired girl, right?”

After a time, Darryl said, “I thought she was nice. She didn’t deserve what happened to her.”

They drove a few more minutes before Cass asked the question: “So what happened to her?” She looked back at Arlene, but Arlene looked away.

“Her daddy caught her with some guy and beat her up,” said Darryl. “They say that’s how she lost the baby.”

The uncomfortable silence lasted all the way to the apartment.

After Dan and Arlene left, Darryl switched on the TV and just sat there.

Finally Cass slumped down beside him. “You need to tell me what’s going on,” she said. “Did that car belong to that girl? Is that why you bought it?”

Darryl closed his eyes. “It’s complicated,” he said. “I guess the answer is Yes and No.”

Cass let that hang for a moment. “Which is Yes and which is No?” she said at last.

“Monica and I – we did have a thing going for awhile. But I’m not the one who got caught with her. I’m not the one who got her…” A tear rolled down his cheek like a bead of sweat, and Darryl just let it roll. He reached for Cass’s hand and held it in both of his. “Look. You’ve gotta promise me something.”

“What’s that?” said Cass, already sensing what he’d say.

“You gotta promise that you’ll never breathe a word of this to Arlene. It’s better to just let her believe what she already believes. Promise?”


© Linda Saldaña, 2008

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