It can’t last forever. The thought has been wafting in and out of consciousness for a year or two, my feelings ranging from engaged enthusiasm to betrayal’s cold tang. I haven’t looked at new cars pining for the status they convey, or a more practical lack of trouble. Any status I cling after is not conferred by a shiny new car. And trouble? It’s a golden era Honda Civic. I don’t think they have trouble.
I had heard of cars being given names, perhaps by boat people in the habit. It never occurred to me when it was new, like most Americans referring to it as “my car”, and others as “Derek’s car”. Over time friends called it “your little car” or “your little blue car”, so since the late Nineties it was Little Car, though in a non-commital way. Two years ago I lent it to a friend over my Hawaii summer, and she misheard, referring to it as Little Blue. It only took twenty years, but the car finally had a name.
Little Blue has been around a long time. When it was new I was a sophomore in college, Saddam Hussein had just annexed Kuwait, cheap long distance was all the rage, and a fast desktop computer ran at forty megahertz. It was new when the world was just opening up, though I seemed as stuck as moving forward. This car could change that.
August 23, 1990 began the new era. I was twenty years old.
A guy named Johnson sold it to my father more than me, since that’s where the money came from. I remember my confusion as to who was paying for what, what I should be looking for, what the occasion or excuse was. My mother would no doubt oppose any choice as too extravagant, contributing to what she had long felt was my spoiled nature. I remember looking at a Nissan Sentra, a Toyota Corolla, some American no-accounts, and this car. Sun blazed down on the lots with all the power of abandonment’s solitude, as if I were a freshly-crashed astronaut. The pavement burned up through my shoes. Middle-aged guys with reedy hair and indifferent eyes fit snugly in their white shirts and red ties, somehow sweatless and comfortable as they let me–some college kid–test drive these cars as sensible as the shoes in the song. So, this is kinda-adulthood.
Memory’s eroding membrane leaves only fragments: a flash of shock when my father said (I think) that he’d take care of whatever trade in and a deposit I could manage didn’t cover; turning over the heavy brochure paper with my friend Matt as if we were looking at a Gutenberg Bible; the drone of air conditioning; the sense of fall semester bearing down with a new urgency, a different promise. I wanted to visit my Pennsylvania grandparents and my Boston friends before school started. Time closed in, features blurred, prices merged. I sat underground in Fort Worth’s bomb shelter library poring over Consumer Reports. The decision was monumental, the money as much as a small country’s budget. Was it the Civic having A/C? The American offerings laughable inferiority? I can only remember the Corolla being way overpriced, stripped down for thousands more. The excitement was gone and I just wanted to not be ripped off too badly.
Johnson was a man who could have been solid once, but was now years of chicken fried steaks stacked on legs. His shirt was striped and he wore no watch, giving no tell as to his degree of untrustworthiness. (Guys with big watches were dead giveaways. I never had a woman salesperson. This was Texas, 1990.) He had a walk as big and round as his face, the hair slicked back and unfazed by the sun. This’ll do you good as a car. Nice solid car. Honda makes a quality vehicle, yessir. Like Southern cops, he pronounced it vee-hick-ul. He walked through the white-tiled showroom like a minor prince training in the king’s shadow, knowing all this was his someday. His cube was nicer than those of the thin and puppy-eager salesmen my age, with grey fabric walls and an old-style multiplex phone, the kind with big square line switches along the bottom. He pinched his finger and thumb together, last joint open to his tongue to lick, then flick through forms. These things sip gas too. Good to have with them Ay-rabs. Never can tell what them Ay-rabs gonna do.
A blur of being passed on to other people: a guy who tried to sell me undercoating, a different one to sell me an extended warranty, a fat, bitter woman who worked a tape-spewing business calculator with long red nails. I don’t remember my father being there, just me and these people waiting for me to slip up. But I didn’t.
I don’t remember the magic moment of getting the keys, of driving off. I remember being in this brand new blue car, UFO silent, the air conditioning Arctic cold with its low and pleasing Starship Enterprise hum. I was on the empty freeway and everything was the grey-white of Texas summer afternoon, drunk with new car smell, mind a million miles gone just as it was perfectly still.
I wish I had a picture to show, but all I can do is tell.
The first place I went was Matt’s house. Both of us were equally amazed, unsure of reality. I remember his surprise and delight, and that he said wow! A unicorn would have been no different. I turned a 360 in the wide suburban street. Look how wide the tires turn! We took turns driving it around the block, listening, mouths open smiles. We practiced backing up in the elementary school parking lot down the street. We popped the hood and marveled at the Japanese mechanics, practical and elegant, humming like a Swiss watch. Outside was burning hot Texas August, but inside the car was penthouse elegant cool. Wow, he said, the mulberry trees green.
I drove it home and began work installing the stereo, the speakers. I sprayed the seats with two coats of Scotchguard and read the manual cover to cover while it dried. Are you leaving tonight? Do you have towels? I had no time for my mother or a friend who wanted to hang out, darkness falling as I waxed the shiny clearcoat. I packed a bag with random clothes and oddball Texas knickknacks collected over the past year as gifts for Boston friends, slept a few hours, and took my Dad’s advice on how to get out of town. Yeah, other side of Nashville today if you really try. But pull over when you get tired.
Big trucks plowed the South’s swamp air. I-20, I-30, I-40, I-81–all grey strips bound in by green trees out of Middle Earth, the starless night’s darkness deeper from the humid wind. I went the speed limit and trucks blasted past, and when I flashed the high beams in all clear they winked their taillights, charging ahead, weaving, unstoppable.
In two days I was in Pennsylvania. I don’t remember the visit, other than all my grandparents were alive, and how in some worlds August is green. Another long day north put me in Boston. My friend on the street did not see me as I parallel parked. I think, but am not sure, that after my exit from the brand new car I yelled Howdy, Tex! He marveled too, said wow at its bug-covered shine. I moved it at the appropriate intervals, evading the city’s immune system. It remained unstolen.
So many adventures, and my memory is of extensive photographic documentation. I looked until I found this one–of Little Blue in Texas morning glories, spring 1993–and stopped from good advice: the mind is a dangerous place to go alone. One picture will have to be enough.
Photographs show how the past accretes over the present. Compare this picture with the one at the top. Back in 1993 the hubcaps still had their grey finish, and the bumper did not have a parking bollard’s white kiss. If we could step into this image we could see that though the paint’s shine endures to this day, it is free of chips. The rear bumper is decades away from being popped off by some silent night misadventure. Popping the hood would show utter cleanliness instead of twenty years’ grime. After that first cross-country trip I stood in my parent’s garage, hood up, checking things, making sure. I promised to it I would never let it devolve to the bedraggled mess I always saw opening any other hood. I did, until I didn’t. Dust and grime didn’t make any difference. Constant cleaning to a perfect shine would have shorted something out long ago. Idealism gives way to practicality.
So many adventures:
- Winter 1991. I have a job photographing fraternity and sorority parties. Dumb luck has me park my new car outside a deep country ranch’s gate, and climb over to get in. Three hours of drunken screaming and a guy ripping a urinal off a wall later, the party shows no sign of abating, but my time is up. Some girls decide they want to leave early instead of wait for the chartered bus. I volunteer four spots for anybody wanting a ride back to TCU. This causes confusion, but one girl decides to go. She was the blond, blue-eyed girl next door, not drunk, a little bedazzled. She climbs over the gate without complaint or learned helplessness. All I remember of her is talking about cars and traffic: I said something about even if cars didn’t pollute, there’d still not be enough room for all of them. She seemed both interested and amazed, such thoughts new. At her sorority house, she paused in the open passenger door, smiling and thanking me. Time did not slow down enough: I only realized I could ask her for a phone number, but not gather the courage to do it. Her smile was genuine. I wonder what happened to her.
- March 1993. A dormmate and I drive south from Reno for a few spring break days at his parents’, north of Vegas. Nevada’s barren center opens wide at Tonopah, where we turn off to a unnumbered road. It turns to gravel. We pass no one, the air muddled and cold. I push the speed and at a turn I feel ice. The wheel stops pointing the car in its arc and I feel the sick certainty of physics working against us. A bump–we are hung up in the sandy ditch. Pushing, revving, pushing–nothing. We fume, each replicating our family dynamics. Half an hour of grim consideration ends when an ancient pickup truck chugs over the hill. Two dark and silent men, their Native American faces as set as the sky, observe us wordlessly, turn to the car, and push it out. They return to the truck and go. My dormmate is beside himself: they could have shot us and nobody would ever know. Do you fucking realize that? I course with a different stupid kid adrenaline, the kind that comes when providence delivers anonymous rescue from stupidity no one else will ever know.
- Winter 1994. In the midst of delayed adolescent breakaway and self-imposed exile, I am in Victoria BC, where for some reason I have decided to try graduate school again. One weekend I take the ferry over to Washington and make the long loop around the Olympics, nosing down thin dirt tracks between trees older than America. I still haven’t learned about icy patches, and take a curve around 101 a little too fast. I remember the sick thrill of time slowing down, the wheel floating, the brakes not locking as the skid is just enough to poke the front wheels off the road. Ahead is a dark drop into trees. No way to push it out alone, I call the credit card help number. I fume at eighty bucks of stupidity but the car is unharmed (or the frame already bent from a year before). Only much later do I consider that a little more speed would have sent me all the way over, into the trees. A little more than that hard into the trees. How many terminal moments are the cold conclusion that a a tiny excess is enormous just the same?
- Early on, several running-out-of-gas embarrassments, typically not far from a gas station. My girlfriend, beside herself with disgust and confusion as much as mildly amused, rescued me, but would become inflamed when I only put a couple bucks in. I explained: cheaper gas somewhere else. I outgrew this not long after we married. Only one incident since, last year. I apologized to my friend, blamed it on temperature. She thought it was funny.
- After graduate school, leaving Reno’s dusty spring into the deep Nevada wastes. It’s July 1993 and I might as well be on the Moon, the sun bearing down on a world of salt and sand. Past Winnemucca the road turns north and I climb a long hill, dusk rising out of the east. At the top, in the last minutes of sun, Idaho is grass. Green hayfields spread in every direction, as far as the eye can see, starting from the Nevada border. Green had never been so beautiful.
- 1996. I have landed the dream job making professional video. All day my boss and I have been in the heat, schlepping cameras around a golf course to capture executive retreat antics. It’s 3am and my boss still works while I head home. At the last light before the freeway entrance, I pull up beside a panel van and consider life in the morning’s thinnest hours. The light turns green. I pull out and T-bone a woman who has run the light. Two squabbling Asian women emerge from the car, pointing and shouting as a Euless cop pulls up. The panel van, I note, is stopped on the overpass, idling on the shoulder, an image ominous from movies but only surreal now. The cop is fat, young, and confused. I’m getting different stories from both parties, he reports, as if this is surprising, or a truth. I point at the van, still stopped there, and the cop goes to talk. I don’t remember what else happens besides driving a few dozen yards with a smashed radiator to a Shell station, eyes pinned to the temperature gauge. What the van told the cop I don’t remember, but the collision didn’t go on me. That was the only accident Little Blue endured.
- Too many trips to recall clearly: out to Boston from Seattle the length of I-90, down to Texas and back multiple times, down and back from as far south as San Diego. And the mundane days to and from work, all the times it served as a pickup, the folding seat allowing furniture, lumber, file cabinets, boxes of books heavy enough the wheels sunk into the fenders. Up and down Mount Rainier. Turns down forest roads so dark there was no memory of light, save for Little Blue’s headlights. Jumps to people in Interstate rest stops and park and rides, everyone always grateful.
Here it is, after nineteen years of that:
Scratches cover the bumpers. A garbage truck backed into the trunk, leaving a triangular divot. The grey wheelcover plasti-coating has long worn off from washing and tire chains, and the door moldings have been reattached with Liquid Nails. Sometimes the trunk needs a slam; the hood opens only on the second try–you have to pull first, then pull the lever again. There are other things, all small but additive.
Two years ago the noise started. Winter only at first brought a soft ticking, like crickets with tiny hammers mining the engine. Advice to adjust the valves did nothing. The noise was back in the fall, louder. Motorhead friends had no suggestions. The odometer ticked higher and higher. Someone asked the obvious, the question I dare not ask aloud: really, how long do you really expect it to go?
Entropy pauses for no one. The noise stopped, and we are all worldly enough to know this means whatever caused the noise had worn through. Trips up into the mountains miles down Forest Service roads became concerning for the first time. I bought tires and it was noticed the steering was leaking. Man, these little Hondas go forever. But cosmology and the mystics both tell us forever ends.
Before Hawaii, I looked at new cars, more at the thrill of being taken seriously than seriously thinking I’d drop that kind of money on a car. After this year’s dark times cleared, I looked halfheartedly. Craigslist had a steady trickle of low-priced, mid-miles Priuses–the only car I saw as a rational replacement–but all were suspicious: weird noises, shifty eyes, email replies barely comprehensible. Until finally the universe gave a yes that could not be denied: a 2005 with only 90,000 impeccably-gay-couple-maintained miles. Seriously underpriced, I heard myself tell the guy sold.
I can commit now. Now I can make decisions.
I know you love advice. My friend sits with me on the gay guys’ porch, immaculate and cool in the bright West Seattle dusk, waiting for them to return. So here’s some: dispose of your old car right away. Don’t wait. You don’t need it weighing you down. He drives Little Blue home for me, at the end raving about what a great car it is. I should have offered him salt to rub in.
Little Blue stays in the garage, the Prius outside in the fire lane. (I have learned from previous disappearances that the second generation Civic is very easy to steal.) Giving it to public radio or the humane society would provide a 30% tax savings, but I decide 100% cash is better: an hour’s research puts its greater Seattle value at about two grand. Craigslist, killer of classifieds and destroyer of newspapers, takes my ad.
Preparations for separation are a rite and an honor, for it if not for me. I splurge on the final wash and get the wax, and use a half-dozen damp towels to wipe all the door wells, the kick plates, the moulding between the seats that never stays clean.
The final vacuum is thorough, and I polish the window glass with Spray-Away.
Mats fray at the edges, and the driver’s side window moulding finally comes off. For the past twenty years the six-inch radio antenna nub has survived every affront, but today succumbed to the whirling brushes. The ad says super clean and I am no liar. At this age, appearances are everything.
I take out the old road atlas and the gas can and all my Seattleite reuseable shopping bags and put Little Blue back in the garage, the door rattling down. Clambering out the passenger door, I realize garaging my homeless friend’s belongings has required this gymnastics for a year. That I returned from New York, that my cat died, that someone I had grown close to left a year ago. Now I am ready for the year to be over. But a clean car has a certain smell and I stand in the doorway and look a long while.
The first Craigslist response is articulate and enthusiastic: someone a few towns up thinks it’s perfect for his girlfriend. Does he have any questions? Silence. The ad expires. Minor reconsideration results in slight rewording and a tiny reduction in price. Publish is clicked on Saturday night.
Sunday morning brings an urgent email: Do you still have the car? How many miles? Other questions ask what was stated in the ad. 312,000 I repeat back anyway. Yes I still have it. I provide my phone number and the phone rings minutes after my reply. A husky woman’s voice comes over and starts the sort of half-attentive conversation one has with someone far too busy, or overwhelmed with children:
So, wow, you still have this car? Because this car woulda been gone first thing in Portland!
I explain she’s the first person to respond and I had only one response the previous week.
Cars like that go really fast in Portland.
I’m in Seattle.
So does it have any problems? Serious problems? Any problems?
For several minutes we talk. She travels a lot and needs a cheaper car–her current lease is killing her. She’s had Civics before and always loved them, but she gets bored and swaps cars often, or wrecks them. Good thing it isn’t red–those always end up wrecked somehow. I have the image of a happy-go-lucky person who has worked hard and keeps working hard because she’s bad with money. Overall, she sounds dead-top-center in the Craigslist flake bell curve: reasonably likely to show up and have money. She won’t be able to get the car until week’s end and would be shocked if I still have it by then. I’m happy to let her know if the car sells.
Wednesday comes. Aside from a badly formed sentence and a phone number that doesn’t work, no other interest. I email Husky, who calls immediately. Are you sure there’s nothing wrong with the car? It would’ve sold right away in Portland. I reiterate the car’s vitals: 23 years old, 312,000 miles. The polite if fractured conversation distills to yous pays your money and yous takes your chances.
Husky is in Vancouver, Washington, just north of Portland, Oregon. The logistics of looking at the car and driving it back are challenging for her, apparently left to her alone. I could ride the bus but that’s down in Portland, and I have to figure out…. Her words flutter past as I realize she’s all but agreeing to buy the car sight unseen, or might as well be. I tell her about the choices in bus shuttles, convenient and cheap. She’s heard of none, her surprise blank and chirpy like a teacher of the younger grades. We don’t talk turkey, per se, but she asks if I’d be willing to take less.
No catches in my throat. I’d be willing to discuss it, I say.
Great! See you Friday!
Hanging up the phone feels light and constricted, a bubble floating inside heavy syrup. It feels like something big happening the deepest parts of us–the parts that really run things–hasn’t quite figured out. It feels the first part of final.
Thursday is sunny and warm. Friday is drizzly, clouds full of sunlit holes. I wait at home. When Husky texts she’s on the train and will be here about noon, I feel hours winding down to something at their end. I don’t go down to the garage and look one last time. I wonder why she’s taking the more expensive train.
At eleven the text comes: be there at noon. I peck at the work laptop, work to not look at the grey outside. I put on clothes that give an impression I’m honest, my thinking goes in selecting heavy shorts, a shirt with buttons. I combine the two keys, the silver plating worn down to brass, on a tacky tourist stop keychain: DEREK – PALO DURO CANYON, the dyed leather shouts. The garage door opens and the car is there. I climb in the last time, except the car smells funny–stale, the smell of sun-roasted plastic bags. I get out, find some spray, spritz. The car smells like spritz.
I’ve always kept the car clean enough it elicit remarks, and I feel good about it now. I wonder if she’ll keep it clean, or if it will accumulate a back seat of fast-food wrappers. That’s not my problem. I don’t have any problems right now, not really.
King Street Station is being revamped to its 19th century glory, though the place of trains today is such there are many places to wait. She is coming on a train like a novel from that time period, bringing disruption of order at the start of the story. That’s what’s happening.
The train is late, but not that late. People trickle out, a woman with large blonde hair floating by, not looking at me. Should I chase her down? Minutes pass. Husky is at the bumper with no intervening crossing, just suddenly there, in a red sweater and thick square glasses. Golly, that’s the first time I ever rode a train.
Awkward handshake follows my awkward approach. She comes on like a big dog determined to be your friend. Wow, so, hey, this is it! How many miles? No one is pressing us to leave, but she doesn’t want to look at the car here, even though she can’t quite get her stuff in it, can’t quite stop asking strange questions. So how do you lock the doors? How many miles? Built like a brick house, her walk is clipped but her limbs swing out in careless, blocky sweeps.
We bump into each other on the passenger side in a Laurel and Hardy bit. Oh, no, don’t wanna drive it here. Big city, don’t know where anything is. You drive and we’ll switch out. WAIT!! She is at the back, eyeing the trunk as if it were gold, bends at the hips. Okay!
Little Blue zips awake as always. Wow! No smoke! Sour she’d think I’d lie about it, I let it go. I’d do the same. She fits in the passenger seat with a giraffe’s grace, fumbling with 1990’s automatic shoulder belts. It has these! Wild! My old ones never had these! Nosing into traffic I explain the automakers had the choice of automatic belts or airbags. So you picked the belts? That’s weird, I wouldn’t do that. I stay quiet. I see the pattern.
We turn a corner and she asks to drive. With my mother this would start an argument–just now you didn’t want to drive, and now you want to stop in traffic and switch out–but this woman is some strange almost-Oregon lesbian with $1800, and that would be inappropriate. I pull over in a 3 minute loading zone. I exit and cross. She opens doors and asks questions about the transmission. I am letting, letting, letting go, floating in the grey sky, being here. Oh, so this is how the seat folds? She has the back door open and is fumbling with the rear seat latch. Taxis honk. I suggest a nice flat parking lot I know where she can try it out. I am not using every tool I know to keep my cool, gritting my teeth, struggling to keep my breath out of panicky gasps. She is moderately annoying and this is no big deal.
Installed in the driver’s seat, she tests the small engine’s blast acceleration: hard down to the light, then pounding stop. Wow, never had an automatic. Keep grabbing to shift! A few more punishing jackrabbit starts and stops and she evens out. So how many miles again? All yours? I point to the odometer. Yes, I’ve had this car 23 years. Wow! That’s a long time. I’ve never had anything in my life that long.
It’s not clear whether she wants to try the freeway or stay in Chinatown’s hilly labyrinth, and I direct her turns left, right, left to Airport Way, reversing my final drive. So the A/C works? I press the button and nothing happens right away, as expected. Oh, that’s ok, I’m sure it’s fine. Writing now on a sunny morning weeks later, I remember only her weaving, inconstant acceleration, and amazement at Seattle’s dreary industrial south side.
So now I gotta get the money from my credit union, so I need to find a [name I don’t remember]. Do you know where that is? Discussion about the Northwest’s non-profit co-op system ensues. I report there’s one just down the street from my house. She follows directions after being told twice, confirmed twice, almost taking the wrong turn anyway. So, would you take $1700? Asking a few blocks from the credit union peeves me, and I say no.
But you said you’d lower the price.
I said I’d be open to discussing it.
So will you take $1700?
That’s what we’re discussing, and since you’ve agreed it’s a fair price, no, not really.
How about $1750? For my train ticket?
As a sign of my own growth, I realize I can not clutch too hard on fifty bucks, and agree. She seems satisfied, but I can’t say. More like she’s closing her mouth mid-pant like a hot happy dog.
At the credit union she persists in adjusting seats. It really is clean! She fumbles with purses and bags and multiple wallets and at last she goes in.
I think to avoid hassle and follow after, suggesting she transfer the money to my account instead of withdraw cash I’ll put right back in. The additional complexity bogs her down, and the kid behind the counter says he can’t do that anyway. I back outside and take the picture above. This is the other end of the 23-year-old sales form above, the one JOHNSON sold.
She emerges with an envelope and hands it to me. I am not so gauche as to count it. We drive up the street, through a maze of freeway pylons and hairpin turns, and are home.
She tries using the key to lock the door, something that hasn’t worked for a while. I show her how to pull the inside door handle and push the switch down, locking everything. Oh I’ll get my guy to put in the keyless locks. Yeah, aftermarket. Really sweet. She doesn’t like hubcaps and they will go.
She has no interest in raising the hood. Instead, she wants the skivvy on good seafood restaurants.
Inside she plays with my cat as I sign over the title, run upstairs and print out the state transfer of ownership form I’d forgotten earlier. My dad had a cat like you! You’re just a great big kitten! The forms are a greater challenge even having read them before: where do I sign? what in which box? Husky is blase. She’s done this lots of times.
She signs. I sign. I tear the bottom and give it to her. I count the money now, on my kitchen counter: seventeen one hundred dollar bills, two twenties, and, oddly, two fives. The fives are beaten as rained-on newspaper, the others crisp. And that is what 23 years distills to.
I hand her the keys. She doesn’t feel right taking the keychain. Your friend got you this! Keep it! We walk down the stairs, out, to the fire lane, where even under clouds the car shines.
She is in the driver’s seat. She is turning the key. The car starting is not mine any more. I take pictures anyway.
This is the last fifteen seconds I see of the little blue Civic that had a name.
Writing now, I am not sure what I felt. Not sadness, but an unpainful loss: it is hard and not hard to see it go. I understand the leaving in a way the a twenty year old kid could not. But the past is free now too, dissolving in the future Husky will make. Even good weight needs to be let go.
Money means many things: exchange, value, worth. We buy a future with it, or are paid to achieve one. Little Blue paid in so many ways.
A week later Husky texts me: I love your car. Thx. I smile and then delete it. I have been living in the future for a week and have no need to look back.