Just a Car

Richard Gustafson

Brooks and his teenage daughter Lilly were driving across town to look at some likely candidates for Lilly’s first vehicle. She was about to turn eighteen and Brooks felt it was time to put her in a car of her own. It would teach her some responsibility and get the family Mustang out of harm’s way. Lilly had already had a few run-ins with parked cars, mailboxes and the southwest corner of the garage. The Mustang was looking more than a little worse for the wear and any more bondo would make it more of a clay sculpture than an automobile.


“Why don’t you just get rid of this thing,” said Lilly to her father. “You don’t want me to have it, so why do you keep it?”

She looked across at her father, who was tapping the steering wheel to the tune of an old Bruce Hornsby hit. “That’s just the way it is,” he sang back to her. She was visibly unimpressed.

“Okay, put on something you want to hear,” said Brooks as his daughter sniffed her way through his CD collection.

“There is nothing here,” she said testily. “Simply Red? How about Boy George? Come on, Dad, are we riding in an elevator? Is this an Otis Mustang?”

“It’s an Otis Redding Mustang. You know, I love this car...sort of. We’ve had it since you were eight or nine years old.”

“That’s a reason to sell, not to keep. How can you ‘sort of’ love a car? How can you ‘sort of’ love anything? It’s just a car and it’s old. It’s getting embarrassing. My car will be newer than this. I hope.”

“We drove to a lot of volleyball matches in this buggy,” said he.

“Do NOT call it a buggy,” said she with the exasperation that fairly oozes from the pores of all teenagers in Southern California. “I am so done with volleyball. I am really, really over it already, except for beach volleyball.”

“You will have fun on the beach in college, I’m sure. But competition has been good for you. Although, without all those club dues and tournament expenses we probably could have bought a Mercedes by now.”

“I’ll take a Jetta. And you should sell this bucket and get a...a...Camry.” She snickered.

It was the ultimate insult. A plain vanilla Camry for her father, who’d long since had the Mustang repainted the same dark green as Steve McQueen’s fastback in the classic movie, Bullitt.

“I’m keeping the Mustang. You really don’t get it, kiddo, cars are like...like favorite shoes, or old sweaters that you want to keep forever. They fit you and they have a history. They become part of you, or part of the family.”

“You’re the only person on earth who thanks his socks for their service before finally throwing them out.” Lilly was going to bring up the disease of elephantiasis, but she couldn’t quite remember how to pronounce it. She had an image in her mind of her father holding out his arms and legs with grotesque, lumpy appendages made of old socks and tee-shirts and sweatshirts with faded logos from long ago school days.

Lilly’s father continued. “You know, I used to see lots of old cars parked in farmyards in Ohio when we took family trips to places like Ash Cave and Old Man’s Cave. My dad would slow down and look them over. I couldn’t figure out why. They were all rusted out and often parked in a row with grass growing up around them. It was like they were put on display. I thought maybe Dad was looking for spare parts for our old station wagon — that green ’54 Ford that we used to fill up with leaves in the fall.”

“You mean the one that you drove onto the back yard grass and loaded full, like a giant garbage bag?”

“Yeah, that one; it was before they had leaf bags for yard cleanup. We drove that wagon out to the park strip and dumped all the leaves out and then headed back for another load. Time after time.”

“And then you hosed it down at the end. On the inside. And watered the grass at the same time. I’ve heard about this my entire life,” said Lilly.

“Well...anyway...my dad explained why he looked at those old cars all lined up like trophies. They were part of the family history. You looked at them and they told a story. There would be an old Model A or T, and a Deuce next to it, then a later car, a post-war car or a pickup. Maybe a ’49 Buick sedan or something, newly planted. Think of the Friday nights spent riding around in those old cars or the picnics at Buckeye Lake or the Sundays at church with everyone dressed up and the ladies in hats.”

“Or the funerals,” added Lilly.

“The milkshake and ice cream runs up to the shake shop by the airfield or visits to relatives over in the next town, say. Maybe parades if there was a convertible. These are people’s lives revealed, Lilly. Sometimes we used to see a line of pickups in a field. Just pickups, going from one old clunker to the next with more than a decade between them, sometimes two. And then a working vehicle nearby. You could see the labor they supported across generations. You could see the history of the country right there.”

“Speaking of clunkers, we’re getting close. There’s a lot up ahead.”

Brooks barely paid attention. He was remembering the family Hillman Minx, a convertible ’60 model and one of the earlier imports to the United States. It had lasted through three inexpensive Earl Scheib paint jobs in six years. In turns it had been red, white and turquoise, an unfortunate choice attributed by the family to the color blindness of Brooks’ father. On Sunday afternoon trips to the ice cream shop on the outskirts of town Brooks and his sister had huddled on the cramped floor by the back seat to be closer to the meager heater while Brooks’ dad drove as fast as he could, attempting to beat the rain without spending half an hour trying to raise the top. Brooks’ mother always kept her window raised while the top was down, another reason for Brooks to hide on the floor.

“Hey dad, wake up, we’re here.”

It was the beginning of used car row in San Bernardino. There were probably eight or nine used car lots in a four block stretch of boulevard. First up was Ike’s Fine Automobiles.

“Let’s just patrol it,” Lilly told her father. “I want to look for silver Jettas.”

“You might have to settle for another color, you know,” came her father’s slightly constricted reply. “And Jettas aren’t cheap.”

“I’m not getting white...no matter how good a deal it is,” she said somewhat tentatively. Lilly wanted to be in control of the purchase of her first car. In spite of what she said to Brooks, it did feel like a rite of passage of some kind. She wanted a car that fit her self image, like most people. Still, she knew it would be hard to ask her father to pay any more than was necessary. The family didn’t have a lot of money and despite her surface demands she was sensitive to their situation. Almost any car would make her better off than some of her friends, she knew. But white was for old people, like white leather belts.

“I want to find a car that I really like. If it’s cool I don’t care if it’s got a dent.”

“I know, Lilly, I want you to have a car that suits you. It’s important. We’ll look around, you never know.” Brooks was beginning to enjoy himself, seeing that Lilly was engaging in the hunt. “Maybe I’ll even see a white ’67 Mustang GT like my dad’s. White. With Firestone Wide Oval tires on it. Red pinstripes.”

Lilly smiled broadly. “That’s on the antique lot. We’re not going there. Or are we?”

“Maybe we’ll end up finding your silver Jetta on the internet. I found your mom’s Toyota—“

“Which now sits in somebody’s farmyard, God rest its soul. What a lemon that was.”

True enough. It had even been painted a pale yellow color over its original red. When the paint peeled it looked bloody and lasted only a year and a half until the divorce. Brooks still claimed the car had something to do with the breakup of his marriage.

“Cars are symbolic, but they are so much more. They are magical,” he explained to his daughter. “They bring good fortune or bad fortune. Or maybe they just reveal it. I’m not sure which, but it’s one of the two.” He looked at Lilly’s uncomprehending face. “In many societies in the past the chariot had a special role in the myths and legends, and a car is actually a modern chariot.”

Lilly had a glazed expression on her face and her father was disappointed that he had not conveyed his meaning.

“Dad, look! A silver Jetta on the first lot!”

Lilly jumped out and ran to the car before Brooks could park. It was an older model. She peeked inside. Black leather. Too good to be true. The seats were a little cracked, but not badly. The headliner cloth was still glued to the ceiling, unlike the back of the green Mustang before Brooks bought the spray glue which Lilly hated because of its long-lingering industrial smell. Check. No spray glue here. Outside clean, except for a little trouble around the right rear fender. No big deal. In fact, good deal because it would bring the price down.

Lilly bought the car in her head before her dad could get within ten feet of it. Behind Brooks a smiling Ike waddled up. He spread his arms in welcoming.

“You like it? Too bad, I just took a deposit on it.”

Lilly’s face began to crumble, but instantly Ike piped up.

“Just kidding. It’s been here a couple of days. Won’t last long. The owner moved to Florida for work and didn’t want to take it. She said she wanted a fresh start in life and the car had to go. It’s a beaut, great for a young lady.”

Lilly stared at the car, running her hands over the curve of the trunk. She began to imagine her future boyfriends loading up surfing gear and beach blankets and a cooler; she saw a back seat full of buddies crammed in for a drive to Santa Barbara.

Ike unlocked the driver’s door and Lilly settled in behind the steering wheel. She looked up at her father and grinned. Brooks grinned, too.

“Well, Lilly, it’s only a car,” he said with a chuckle.

They drove away from the lot in tandem. Brooks led the way and Lilly followed behind in her newly purchased silver Jetta. Brooks had wanted to investigate the other dealers in the neighborhood to see if there were any cars worthy of an offer, but he knew it would have been futile. Lilly had made up her mind and it was pointless to look around. There could have been fifteen silver Jettas over at Moresby Cars, but she had the one she wanted. There was a certain grace in finding it right away, as if Fate had intended it to be hers alone. And Ike had been surprisingly reasonable about the price, which made Brooks slightly suspicious. However, as Ike had said, a used car is usually either too cheap or too expensive.

“Nobody trusts a fair price,” Ike had stated. “If it’s a bargain then something must be wrong with it. If it’s not a bargain then people complain about the price. You learn a lot about human nature in this business, believe me.”

Brooks, always wanting to be an exception to the rule, had bought into Ike’s sales pitch. They had managed to negotiate what seemed like a fair price. Lilly got her car. Brooks raised his opinion of himself as a provider and a man of reason. Ike stayed in business.

Now the two vehicles paraded down the boulevard. Lilly called Brooks by cell. “Dad, let’s go for an ice cream. I’m buying!”

“Let’s drive out to that place near Wildwood Park, the one on the road toward Arrowhead,” he responded.

“Ooh. Can we drive up to Lake Arrowhead? That would be so fun!”

“Uh, maybe not a great idea on your first drive. Remember what happened to me in the old Saab. I told you about that, and I did it in another car too.”

Actually, Brooks had managed to sustain damage to three cars on their first day in his possession. It was a family joke, but Lilly had been too young to remember first hand. She had been a baby when Brooks rear-ended a dump truck in his beloved Saab. It could have cost Lilly her young life, but the damage had been minimal and the Saab went on to what in Brooks’ mind passed as a glorious career. He had always felt safe in that car after the initial shunt and until nearly the end of its working life he never had another mishap. It was a car Brooks would have liked to display in his yard ever after, had that been a viable option.

“See you at Wildwood,” said Lilly.

“Over and out,” came the reply. Lilly could see Brooks through the window glass talking directly into the cell phone speaker as if he held a walkie talkie. It was an old habit that died hard, particularly since Brooks’ childhood had featured walkie talkies that his father brought home from work to use on caravan trips with friends. In those days it had been a unique and entertaining experience to communicate from vehicle to vehicle while driving. Later, with the popularization of CB radio, anyone could do the same and the magic disappeared into the salvage yard of history. All of this was lost on Lilly, who already viewed her father affectionately as a pet dinosaur. Still, she could not resist correcting him. She called again.

“Hey dad, remember you don’t have to talk into the speaker. Just be normal, okay?”

Brooks was startled that Lilly had made this observation from the Jetta and he glanced up at his rear view mirror to see her. He brought his eyes back to the road just in time to see a street washing truck pull out into the lane in front of him and he hit the brakes, but it was too late. With a loud thump the green Mustang struck the back of the truck. Brooks came to a sudden stop and Lilly brought the Jetta to a halt just behind, saving it from a similar fate. The big truck pulled over and out of it came an equally large man with a scowl on his face.

It was a scene that had been repeated countless times for the last seventy five years or more on the roads of the world. Two men who lived in different universes experienced the same event and, unsurprisingly, held opposing views about what had happened.

“Why did you smack my truck.”

“Why did you pull out in front of me.”

“Why don’t you look where you’re going.”

“Why don’t you yield to oncoming traffic.”

“Why don’t you open your frigging eyes and see the traffic.”

“My daughter was driving behind me—”

“It’s a good thing she wasn’t driving in front of you. You put green paint on my truck....say, that’s a nice Mustang, like Bullitt, right?”

Brooks surveyed the damage. Lilly had walked up beside him to see for herself. It wasn’t too bad. The hood was bent a little and the front bumper was somewhat mashed in. The hood might be a problem, but the bumper could be replaced as easily as it had been the last time. Lilly wondered how upset her dad would be, but he calmed quickly. She recognized the look on his face, which they both referred to as his “damage control” look. They exchanged glances and then Brooks turned to the truck driver.

“Let’s forget it,” Brooks said in a conciliatory tone. “There’s really nothing wrong with your truck and I suppose I am technically at fault.”

“Technically,” said the driver with a grunt. “Listen, if you ever want to sell that thing, I know a guy who buys a lot of old Mustangs.”

“No thanks,” said Brooks.

“Well, here’s the number if you change your mind.” The driver handed over a slightly grimy business card. Then he turned and walked back to the truck without another word.

Brooks pulled into the ice cream shop’s parking lot with Lilly behind him, the distance between the two cars about double what it had been before the accident. Brooks’ mood was decidedly darker than before as he stepped to the order window with Lilly.

“At least you can still drive it. It’s not like it’s totally wrecked. I mean beyond being a wreck already; you know what I mean,” offered Lilly. She quickly pulled out her wallet in a gesture of generosity. “Come on, I’m buying.”

“Maybe you’re right,” said Brooks quietly. “Maybe it’s time to sell the Mustang and move forward.”

“Not forward into the Jetta, I hope. Just kidding.” She was trying her best to lighten things up. Ice cream runs had always been happy occasions and the Jetta was still a cause for celebration. The Mustang’s latest encounter with a foreign object brought back a few untidy memories for both father and daughter, however. Best to shrug them off and salvage the day.

“No really,” Brooks said with a sigh. “I always have a hard time letting go. Let’s have a toast to your new bug—I mean, your Jetta.” With that Brooks raised his sherbet cup to meet Lilly’s Rocky Road cone and then took a bite. “Mango is my friend. And now, may you have many great adventures in your new car and may I have a few of my own along the way. I should check out that guy’s Mustang number. Maybe I could end up with a partial swap for a real classic.”

Lilly held up her cone again and said with a laugh, “Way to move forward!”

“Right,” said Brooks as he fumbled in his pocket for the business card. “Tell you what; let’s head up Rim of the World Highway in your Jetta. We can leave my car here. We’ve already done the first day damage. Guess I took one for the team.”

“We can be at the lake in less than an hour, easy,” said Lilly. “I’m driving.”

“Of course,” said her father.

As they drove up the twisty mountain road to Lake Arrowhead they talked about Brooks’ next car. Lilly told him he should get something other than a Mustang.

“What’s the opposite of a Camry?” he asked.

“Good question. A Ferrari, I think. So maybe you’re not getting a Ferrari. You could get, um, a Miata.”

“A Mazda? That’s it? No. That’s not me.”

“You are not what you drive. Just get something that looks good.”

“I look good on a bike.”

“A motorcycle? You?”

“No, a mountain bike. I could put it on top of the car.”

“You can’t get an SUV,” Lilly said sternly. Too much gas and pollution. And no minivans.”

“I loved my ’72 Ford Econoline window van.”

“It was a hippie van. It had curtains. Didn’t it?”

“They all had curtains. I have stories about that van, but not for your ears.”

There was silence for awhile. Lilly concentrated on the curves in the highway and Brooks briefly harkened back to his college days in the van. They passed an RV and Brooks glanced over at the driver, an older man sitting in a captain’s chair with his dour looking wife along side. Suddenly Brooks sat upright.

“I’m in for a midlife crisis. Must deal with it. I am going to buy a Porsche.”

“You can’t afford a Porsche. A Porsche is a mid-life crisis.”

Brooks slumped in his seat. His daughter had a point. Perhaps it was time to back down from all the car madness. Perhaps he should get a something simple and unaffected. Something that conveyed sensibility and a lack of attachment to the car’s image. Like a Camry, even, but not an actual Camry. A Prius. A hybrid Toyota Prius. Perhaps that would be the intelligent solution. Neither white nor red. Nor silver, for that was now Lilly’s color.

The shores of Lake Arrowhead appeared before them. The scene looked inviting, with the beautiful lake reposing in deep blue. They parked in a spot overlooking the water. A light breeze blew through the open windows of the Jetta.

“I’ll get a Navy blue Toyota Prius,” Brooks said confidently. “Great mileage, low emissions. Safe car. I hear they are fun to drive. Maybe not a babe magnet, but still...makes a lot of sense. What do you think?”

“Great, Dad. But remember. It’s just a car.”

© Richard Gustafson, 2008

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