The following takes place between 4pm and 5pm
The afternoon sun shone through the canopy of leaves above us, turning the ones nearest the middle of the street to a greenish gold. The air was hot, thick and heavy with humidity, and even the small current of it leaking in through the barely-open sunroof was enough to make me sweat despite the air-conditioning.
I’m no stranger to heat and humidity. I spent my childhood in New Orleans – birth to age five, Las Vegas – five to seven, Austin seven to ten, Los Angeles ten to twelve, Atlanta twelve to fifteen, Las Vegas fifteen to the present, and was currently looking at a final move back to The City Of Angels where I’d attend – probably – college.
My dad’s a nautical engineer for the military, which is why I can couch my descriptions of my childhood homes in prison jargon. Ten to twelve.
I should resent him for it. I’ve lost count of the number of schools I’ve attended; I’ve stopped trying to make long-term friends; everything I own fits in exactly ten cardboard boxes; and the rest of the Calloway family tree has gotten used to us never making a family reunion three years in a row, much less making it back for family events like births, confirmations, graduations, and funerals.
I can’t resent having seen more of the United States in eighteen years than most people see in a lifetime though. I can’t resent a life of upper middle class privilege, the great – if unconventional – education I’ve received, or the connection with my parents and brother that a lifetime of having nobody but each other had forged. We had nobody but ourselves and each other. We were a family in a way that people who have a permanent home and an expectation of having a permanent home in three years can’t appreciate.
These days though…the wheels were falling off. It started five years ago when my oldest brother got in some trouble that my dad solved by sending him off to live with my grandparents in New Orleans. And not that long ago, my mom made the unilateral decision that my brother Brett was no longer part of the family, and he’d agreed, packing up his stuff in a panel van and moved to LA ahead of us to put himself through college.
Thinking about him paying the price for my mistake – the one and only time the high school gossip machine had ever gotten a detail wrong – made me feel ill. He’d gone without complaint though. It’s the family way to sacrifice for other people. Dad was a Rescue Diver before he hurt his back and became an engineer – “So That Others May Live” is in our blood.
“You all right?” Dad asked from the passenger seat.
“Just fine,” I said, pulling myself back to the present.
“You’re kinda quiet.”
“Thinking about the money burning a hole in my pocket,” I lied. I had a check for seventeen thousand dollars folded in quarters in tucked in the back pocket of my black jeans. More money than I’ve ever had before. More money than I’ve ever seen in one place. A good chunk of it was mom and dad’s – a graduation gift.
“You earned it,” he said. “And your mom and I figured you’d probably need a car once we got back to LA and you went to college. I’m just glad you could combine it with your money and get something you really wanted, otherwise you would’ve gotten an old Geo Metro.”
I chuckled at the thought. “People still drive those?”
“Maybe? I guess…?”
The house I was looking for was downtown-ish, in a schizophrenic area on the coal side of the Fox River. Nicer neighborhoods gave way to slums, gave way to bars and machine shops and train yards and docks, gave way to clubs and cafes and upscale furniture stores and administrative buildings, all of which were situated between the coal piles that dotted the river’s edge and the old-money mansions that sat two or three blocks in from the water’s edge. Even the expensive old homes couldn’t make up their minds: some were peeling paint, sagging towards the ground with appliances and dirty, broken children’s toys scattered in the overgrown weed lots that passed as front yards, while others – sometimes just next door – were immaculately clean and well trimmed, the gold house numbers and door handles and doorbell fixtures catching the sun like mirrors.
Green Bay – the biggest little town in the state. Sort of like Mercy, Florida was. I’d only been there once to visit my older brother after he got bounced from New Orleans due to getting in trouble again, but the similarities were undeniable. This city would be absolutely unmemorable, forgotten by all except its inhabitants if it weren’t for the Packers.
And even they weren’t that exciting these past few years.
I took a left at the big gothic sandstone building with the “Public School System” sign, and nearly immediately hung another left. More shady streets. I started scanning street signs.
A few short blocks later I turned right, and almost immediately parked the car in front of one of those massive homes that seemed to be par for the course around here. This one was moderately well kept up. The one to its right was beautifully maintained, the one to its left was a dump. I think it was splitting the difference.
Dad looked out the window at the house. “You want me to go with you?”
“Nah, I’ll be fine. Thanks though.”
“I’m out here if you need me.”
“I’ll be back,” I told him, and stepped out of the car. The heat was intense, and the humidity stifling. Sweat gathered along my upper arms and legs and at the back of my neck, seconds out of the car.
A tall, thin woman with frizzy hair and leathery skin answered the door after three knocks and a pause. “Mrs. Stewart?” I asked. “We talked via email about the car?”
She shook my hand as she stepped out onto the porch. “Nice to meet you. No offense, but you don’t look anything like I’d expected.”
“The car’s around the side of the house, if you’ll follow me.”
The driveway ran past the side of the house, to a garage the same dark brick as the main building. The garage itself was actually attached; an attachment I assumed had come later in its life. It looked like some sort of tumor on the side of the house.
Inside the cool shade of the garage I couldn’t help but notice the order. Gardening implements, tools, even the rags were organized; a place for everything and everything in its place.
Mrs. Stewart pulled back the floral print bed sheets covering the car, and the highly organized qualities of the shovels and spades receded to the back of my mind. The Mazda RX-7 in front of me looked like crap, there was no denying it, but lack of paint aside; there was nothing else wrong with it. I’d seen numerous pictures of the interior and mechanical parts, and while it had lost the gleam and shine of a new car, it had the muscular, worn-in look of a familiar tool; sort of like Dad’s power saws that way.
I got into the driver’s seat and took in the feeling of power the car emanated. This thing was built for speed. It knew its role in life well, and took pride in meeting and exceeding the expectations laid out for it. The cabin of the car was austere, almost like a fighter jet’s cockpit. I popped the hood release, got out, and took a look at the heart of the animal. Clean, well-cared-for. I checked a few of the parts, and they matched the description Mrs. Stewart had put on eBay.
I still could not believe I was getting this car for seventeen grand. There was at least that much just in parts. I put the hood down. “I’ve gotta ask, what’s the catch? You obviously know what you have on your hands here, and that you could get a LOT more for it. Why so cheap?”
Mrs. Stewart snorted. “There is no catch. It was my ex-husband’s. We got divorced. I want it gone.”
“Ah.” I understood completely. Stupidly giddy with excitement, and that feeling of animosity, I understood. I took the check out of my pocket and unfolded it before handing it to Mrs. Stewart. “Agreed upon amount, look it over and then I’ll sign it.”
She inspected it like she was examining a bomb, and then handed it back. “Looks real enough.” Her voice said she was joking, so I didn’t say anything snarky.
I set the check on the hood, pulled a pen out of my vest pocket, and signed it. “I’m not gonna complain about the lack of a test drive,” I told her. “If I don’t like it, I can double my investment.”
Mrs. Stewart pocketed the check and handed me three sets of keys, two of which I put in my satchel. “I hope you do like it. Lotta time and money put into this car.”
I got into the car, turned the key in the ignition. It started right up with a high-pitched growl. To me, it sounded like a purr. A loud purr. I waved goodbye, and drove down the driveway, out into the street, pulled up along the far curb opposite the Acura I’d been driving earlier. Turning the car off, I just sat. It was MINE. How long had I dreamed of owning a street racer? Now I had one, and one of the best and cheapest I’d ever even read about.
I was so absorbed in amazement idiotic giddiness and self-congratulations that I didn’t see Dad at the window until he knocked.
“Tell me you’re going to paint it,” he said. “Please, for the love of all that is automotive, tell me you’re going to paint it.”
I laughed. “Oh yeah.” I was already running through various designs in my mind. Black with “Like A Rose” in thorny, vine-y print on the sides. Or, considering where I was going, “Los Angeloser” on the hood in pink. Maybe both. Car didn’t have to have a tasteful paintjob in order to be fast.
We wandered around the car a few times, me pointing out various details, Dad taking in the fact that his teenager now had a racecar. He probably wasn’t comfortable with that fact.
The tour ended after he looked under the hood. “Kiddo, I gotta get going. I’ve gotta be in Marinette in just a couple of hours.”
Dad was consulting for a few days on one of the new Littoral Combat Ships at the shipyard up north. Besides picking up the Mazda, it was the reason he was up here.
“Before I go…” he walked around to the passenger side and got in, then motioned through the window for me to join him. I got in. “You can’t take it,” I said jokingly.
He smiled. “I know. Two things though.” He reached down to fumble at his ankle, there was a tearing noise of Velcro, and then he handed me a hard, black bundle of fabric. “Can’t take it on base. Take it back to the hotel and lock it up in the safe, or keep it with you. I’d prefer that.”
“Dad, that’s kinda illegal…”
“I don’t want you wandering around the city – like I know you’re gonna do – without it.
I made a face. Not that I wasn’t comfortable with it…it was just that a car like this occasionally attracted official attention. “Fine. I tucked it into an inside pocket of my satchel.
“Also,” Dad said, pulling out his wallet. “I eat on base, so I don’t need this.” He handed me his Visa. “Don’t skimp on eating out, but don’t make me regret it, ok?”
“Thanks dad. Right now though, I don’t think I COULD eat. I’ll probably still be driving around by the time you get back”
He smiled then leaned back in his seat and sighed. “You know something, one of the reasons I wanted to do this with you was to get you away from the house. That situation with your brother in April…I want you to know you don’t have to try to make up for what he did. You’re your own person, and just because your mom and I are on edge right now with each other and your brother, don’t think we don’t love you any less.”
My stupid giddiness evaporated as fast as water would on the street outside. Well, there went my whole damn day. I let the grin that I’d had turn somber-ish at an appropriate speed instead of the crash I wanted.
“Your mom and I are so proud of you. Never forget that.”
I thought: “You shouldn’t be.”
I said “Thanks dad.”
“See you in a couple of days.” He leaned over to put an arm around me and then got out of the car.
I stared at the Acura with hot eyes until it was out of sight. Four days by myself. Four days with nothing but my new car and the self-recrimination bouncing around inside my skull to keep me company, stuck in Hicktown, Wisconsin where the three biggest activities were drinking beer, eating cheese, and wearing yellow Styrofoam wedges on your head.
Usually all at the same time.
The beer was probably out – I’d have to try it with my fake ID, but I had a feeling I’d get busted. I don’t eat raw cheese. And I’d be damned if I’d wear one of those dumb hats.
I swallowed hard and looked around the interior of the car. I should be happy. I WOULD be happy. I pulled my wallet out of my satchel and tucked Dad’s Visa into it, then pulled out my driver’s license and tucked it into one of the card slots on the my visor. I looked at my face staring back at me for a minute. If only you knew then what you know now.
Misery was no way to spend the next four days. I’d go back to the hotel – just a short drive from here – and plan my next move. I had a feeling it would involve driving down to Chicago. “Samantha Calloway, you have a car, a credit card, and a Pea-Two-Thirty-Eight. What are you gonna do next?”