Barker Auto isn’t one of the better car dealerships in Greenville. In fact, like the Waffle House on Front Street responsible for last year’s E.coli outbreak, it has a reputation. After several complaints to the Better Business Bureau and a featured story on Channel 11’s News Hour (reporter Tabatha Lemoore was particularly vicious with her assessment, using several adjectives that went beyond impolite and crossed gleefully into the realm of the unprofessional) the place is now on the verge of bankruptcy. I honestly have no idea what Grace’s parents are thinking. This is America; used cars are like Twinkies, they can be bought almost anywhere. Why here?
“This is it!” Smiling, Grace tugs my sleeve, pulling me to a fire red Toyota Camry parked at the far end of the lot, positioned between a blue Chevy Cobalt with a shattered windshield and a rusty barbwire fence. “Isn’t it cool, Mable?”
“Yeah,” I say, scanning, keeping an eye out for vagrants, stray dogs, and that ever-present Greenville staple, the hooded black male. Normally, Grace is the neurotic, ever careful, but with her currently in toddler mode (honestly, I’ve seen less excitement on Christmas morning in the Nolan household), I’ll have to be our eyes, and I won’t allow us to become statistics. “Just like you said.”
Grace releases my arm and takes a small, tentative step forward. Her smile is toothy and wild. You’d think she’s just witnessed the Resurrection, Christ in white robes. But what she really sees is her first real step into adulthood: four wheels, a 2.4-liter engine, and a twenty-gallon gas tank, all signifying freedom and possibility. The momentum of this moment is perpetual and will carry her out of adolescence, through college and into motherhood. She’ll tell her grandkids about this car.
I give her a minute and get a better look at the dealership, wanting to make plans for a quick getaway in case some crackhead decides to show his chapped lips and waxy, pot-marked face. The sight is cheerless. It is a used car lot, in every way filling the stereotype. It could be the set for an AMC melodrama, and I half expect to see a director barking orders at his assistants or dozens of extras milling around, hoping to be noticed for their particular forlorn and diminished portrayals of the living dead.
I turn, curiosity moving my feet in a slow, deliberate 360. I take in more of the same, absorbing images that would cause a more honorable young girl to commit seppuku. I am a Greenvilleite, and this (the black side of town or not) is my home. Shouldn’t I be ashamed of how ramshackle it is, of the litter in the street and the half-dozen overfilled garbage cans, several with bags town open and spilling onto the pavement?
“You probably want to hurry up.” My attempt at whispering fails as my words carry over the lot, like leaves pushed by a strong wind.
“I will.” Grace lies, her eyes fixed on her future ride. She rests a hand just above the hood, too timid to actually touch the thing. I can only imagine what her wedding night will be like.
The lot itself sits caddy corner to a defunct movie theater (the busted marquee still has showtimes for Rush Hour 2, circa the early 2000’s) and a suspect looking Mexican restaurant, La Piñata. All told, it’s a lonely acre of fifteen or sixteen mid-model cars, a dilapidated single-wide trailer, and hundreds of partially filled, rather desperate looking balloons.
“Greenville…” I whisper, the word tasting sour, unpalatable. I can feel my middle-class whiteness welling up in me like heartburn. Is it something in the air? This is the seedy side of the city, the part the blacks burned during a self-destructive, self-mutilating riot back in ’67. Perhaps the ghosts of that time remain, wanting revenge. God, what can people gain from torching their own grocery stores and barber shops?
“Just give me a minute,” Grace says to no one, her mind a week down the road, both figuratively and literally. She’s promised everyone a trip to Brannon. We’ll see how that plays out.
I look at the overcast sky; it’s like a wool blanket, both grey and heavy. Behind it the late afternoon sun is a perfect orb, emitting the feeble glow of a 20-watt bulb, appearing stationary apart from the drifting clouds. It’s hard to believe the Earth is orbiting that ball of burning gas at a thousand miles a second. I can almost reach out and grab the thing, sure it would be lukewarm to the touch. As cool as today’s been, I’ll have to remember to find my jacket for tomorrow. Summer is over.
“It’s a 2008.” Grace fidgets, stepping from foot to foot, excitement filling her heart like pee fills a bladder. I’m sure that when the times comes and Mr. Laurent finally hands his daughter her first set of car keys, she’ll disintegrate in a Vesuvian eruption of giggles and tears. “Only thirty-five thousand miles. Daddy says it must’ve belonged to an old person.”
“How morbid,” I say, wondering what the inside must smell like. Grandma Mimi’s Grand Marquis always reeks of pee, both human and cat.
“Yeah, like they just used it to go to church and the doctor, and that’s it.” With the shyness of a church mouse, Grace begins inspecting the car up-close. She keeps her hands in her pockets as she peeks into the cab. It’s as if those two tons of steel, fiberglass, and rubber were no more than a bubble, a delicate and impermanent thing that would, if touched, burst and disappear forever. Maybe. After all, the financing still hasn’t gone through yet. “Isn’t it beautiful?”
“It is.” I smile, attempting to make Grace’s enthusiasm my own, adopting it as if it were a lost kitten, though wondering if it’ll be worth the trouble. Strays tend to have fleas, don’t they? I smile harder, my cheeks straining, teeth clenched. “It’s nice.”
Usually, I wouldn’t attempt to share anyone’s enthusiasm for their new/used car. I’m cynical like that. My own Grand Caravan-a tribute to the mid-nineties with its DARE bumper sticker and busted cassette player-was a hand-me-down. It was both expected and slightly dreaded, inherited with the same reluctance as I would’ve given a genetic predisposition for high blood pressure or female pattern baldness. By comparison, being handed a vehicle hardly a decade old and without so much as a scratch on its aesthetically pleasing body, seems like an indulgence. But Grace is kind and loving and would give me the tiny shoes off her tiny feet if I asked. And so I love her and her happiness. I only hope the thing isn’t a lemon, or worse, a death trap.
June walks up beside me, eyeing the Camry as if it were something magical, Cinderella’s carriage or Aladdin’s flying carpet. She grins, knowing she’ll soon be riding in comfort. “Does the AC work?”
“Yes, it works! It all works! Everything works!” Grace sings, her smile giving her voice a sweet rhythm, the sound of warm caramel dripping over wax paper. She moves to the passenger side, batting away several balloons tethered to the side view mirror. More are tied to the driver’s side view and a few to the antenna. You’d think a child made a half-hearted attempt to get the car airborne, but either ran out of balloons or motivation before the proper helium-to-weight ratio was achieved. “It’s perfect.” She goes on to the back of the car, examining something, the trunk maybe. “Dad’s had three mechanics check it out.”
“It’s got AC.” June’s voice is calm, but her eyes are exclamation points. “I think she’s got you beat.”
This is bored June in her element, the teenage gadfly, a pseudo-intellectual concerned with pushing buttons. But unlike Socrates, her’s isn’t a search for truth or social stability or bringing out the best in her friends, only amusement. Can she turn me green-eyed with envy? I’m sure she knows the answer.
“Well, we can ride with her from now on.” I watch as a few blackbirds sweep across the dim sun before settling on a tangle of power-lines. I smile. Giving way to hope I begin pondering the joys of working AC. “The van is beginning to stink anyhow, like corn chips.” I turn to Grace whose squatting behind the car’s trunk. “We can ride with you from now on, right?”
Her head pops up, all brown hair and grey eyes. She smiles my answer before disappearing again. Maybe it’s bumper stickers she’s looking at? Romney 2012: Believe in America! I have one of those on the van, that and a less recent Bush/Cheney 04′, which I (a Republican) can’t bring myself to scrap off. After all, it’s a piece of history, isn’t it?
“Maxwell and Brian won’t fit in there,” June says. She cracks her neck, first in one direction then the other, before moving to the driver’s window. There she studies a faded Car Fax print out. It promises a history clean of accidents, fires, and floods. “They’re going to need rides.”
I exhale, breathing out the sweet promise of mechanically cooled air and inhaling the sad certainty of chauffeuring around the Laurel and Hardy of West Greenville High School. Perhaps indefinitely. I doubt Maxwell will ever get the smell out of his car, and even if he could, the birds (there were hundreds of them by the time we left the school parking lot) would’ve carried it off by now, piece by American-made piece, leaving only a skeletal frame behind like sun-bleached bones on the Serengeti.
“‘Irish car bomb’…” I measured the words-by now the punchline to an incredibly vulgar joke-as I would the first line of a haiku. It comes up one syllable short. Maybe Joseph Neff isn’t as clever as he thinks he is.
“You know you don’t have to give them rides,” June says. She’s read my expression like a ransom note and found the obvious solution. “They can take the bus.”
“I know.” I kick a battery, crushed flat by who knows how many cars and spotted with flecks of rust like acme. Around it are bent screws, torn paper cups, and broken glass-an ocean of broken glass. The occasional Coors or Budweiser label looks up at me, appearing pathetic, a far cry from their cheerful commercials. “But I have too.”
My words surprise me with their finality, with their weight and density. It’s like someone slipped a new textbook into my backpack, a thick tome to add to all the others (American Lit. III, Calculus I, AP Biology, AP Psychology), to be read and digested, it’s contents stored for it’s promised future usefulness. I’m beginning to wonder if that use is merely to inspire awe. Funny how the concept of infinitesimals still thrills me, and hearing about them is like being tickled by billions of impossibly small feathers. Mr. Laramie only touched on the subject for a few minutes, perhaps not wanting to overwhelm his students with ideas that question both God and reality.
“They’re my friends,” I say, more to myself or perhaps to the sun-it also suffers from strange attractions and near-permanent orbits doesn’t it?- than to June. “And after all, friends do for friends.”
“Loser,” June shakes her head, and you’d think I’d just informed her of my plans to become a chain-smoker or streetwalker, “now those gay guys are going to bomb your van next.”
“Maybe.” I begin wondering a million things, each of them a piece of one of Grandma Mimi’s mystery jigsaw puzzles, ones she keeps in plastic Ziploc bags, their covers gone forever. Strange how every tile is there, but we’re left guessing at the overall picture. Is it a 95′ Grand Caravan? The swollen, pink face of a new friend? Three teenage boys wearing skinny jeans and matching rainbow bracelets?