First Things Last

In which our protagonist Buzz drives his emigrating step-father Jerry to the airport

99/12/24-20:07

My mother died before I was born.

That's what Jerry, my step-father, was trying to explain as we drove to JFK airport in the rain.

Green blobs, indicating precipitation, covered the entire east coast on satellite weathermaps when over dinner we watched the updates from Florida. This meant it would be a white Christmas inland and at higher elevations, another soggy Yuletide for Long Island.

But it wasn't raining now. The clouds had broken and I could see the moon racing us through the roadside trees. It had been following our car since the day I was born, but even after 111,000 miles the engine was reliable and the moon would never catch us.

The car could have been a classic had its skin not been eaten through in places by thirty years' of roadsalt. To his credit--although it was more the result of apathy than design)--Jerry never tried to patch the rust spots with Bond-oTM or had the car done by Earl "I'll paint any car for $99" Scheib.

Because it was cheaper and he had the know-how, Jerry made repairs himself. Our closest hours were spent among the dilapidated and discarded dreams of rusting automobiles in a Queens junkyard, smack dab in the middle of Gatsby's valley of ashes.

There was a car there which was identical to our own except that it had been in a terrible accident when it was new. The roof was peeled back like the top of a sardine can and there were dark stains on the dashboard and fabric of the exposed interior which years of rain had failed to wash away. Most people don't want a car after someone has died in it, the junkyard man told us the day he first showed it to us. It was how he got his best bargains.

He knew the story behind each car on the lot, from the apparently flawless late model lemons to the comical cubes of steel which had been compacted for scrap. Like a Civil War buff visiting a battlefield, he retold the tales of death and destruction in hushed reverent tones, as if he were embellishing each gory detail in the interest of historical accuracy, not merely to indulge his own morbid proclivities.

"High school graduation present and the kid ate the steering wheel that same night." Why would anyone eat a steering wheel? 8-year-old me wanted to know. Soon thereafter I'd lose my first tooth biting hard on our own.

The junkyard man had us look at the odometer: 000009. It was easy to see because the steering column had been removed as part of the extrication process, further convincing me that the wheel had been literally eaten. "It woulda still ran, too," he said somewhat wistfully, "but I promised the parents I'd part it out--they couldn't stand the thought of one day seeing it on the road."

He looked around. "This place is a graveyard in more ways than one."

Like a donor whose violent death leaves his organs intact, our car's double provided the vital young parts which kept our '69 Olds rolling. Thanks to those happy weekend forays to the auto graveyard, all the parts were original--a key criterion for determining whether a car earned "classic" status. I wish I could say the same for myself, that all my parts were original. But I feel like a car with a $99 paintjob, shiny and new-looking on the outside but rotting out beneath the surface.

I only knew so much about what made cars classic or not because a local gas station attendant with Joe stitched on his shirt owned the same year and model as ours was always asking if he could buy pieces of our car. Jerry was befuddled by these overtures, not knowing the proper American response to such importunings. "How much you want for the gascap?" Joe asked, offering to replace it with a brand new one that could be locked with a key. He reached in for the cigarette lighter--"You don't smoke, do ya?" Ah, but Jerry did, and offered him a Dutch Master so there wouldn't be any hard feelings.

Joe offered to install a new stereo with AM/FM/cassette in exchange for the factory-installed AM radio with five preset buttons, all of which Jerry kept tuned to the same talk station. The mechanic's own would-be classic was up on blocks at the side of the garage, needing--in addition to the gascap, cigarette lighter, and radio--original rims, original upholstery, original tail light covers, and an original engine. Oddly, he never offered to buy our whole car, preferring instead to try and piece his own together from cannibalized parts he had no luck hunting down.

I used to be embarrassed by our rusty gas-guzzler, but I grew to embrace it for the same reason most people wax nostalgic over just about anything: I didn't want anything to change.

The radio wasn't so old that it had to warm up--transistors had replaced vacuum tubes fifteen years before it was built--but it's old-fashioned backlit dial did give off a certain warmth, was as reassuring as a fireplace when I turned it on to drown out my step-father's confession of how he, not I, had killed my mother.

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