When the universe says yes, you must yes back.
Little Blue, faithful companion, has long been growing long in the tooth. The top end ticking had faded, the steering leak was minor, the other slings and arrows it had endured cosmetic and minor, but Little Blue is a iron machine. I had dreams of entropy worms sniffing through it, eating a molecule here and there. Transmission failure haunted me more than the engine, the subliminal suggestion planted by a well-meaning mechanic. The last junkyard trip I saw no fourth-generation Civics beyond 250,000 miles. Clues added up. Cheap gets us only so far. We can’t be lucky forever.
Two years ago, after adjusting to Oscar’s attic, he and I would waste a few Sunday hours on new cars. Kias, Toyotas, Subarus, I think. They were the shape of car I wanted, the hatchbacks of old now called “five-doors”, but dropping that much money on a conventional car was never me. Looking at these cars and enduring the mediocre to bad salesmanship was nothing like the thrill of looking for Little Blue twenty-plus years ago. But as a way of breaking up habits and patterns, it helped to show me I was on the right path. Life involves yes, and sometimes, the right no.
Last summer I evaluated my savings, took a deep breath, and looked half-heartedly through Craigslist ads. Used Prius prices were what my subconscious expected: no surprise seeing higher-mileage mid-2000s cars for eight, nine thousand dollars. The old dictum of if it sounds too good to be true, it probably is was re-learned at no greater cost than wasting a few minutes of my motorhead friends’ time, asking their opinion on ads quickly uncovered as scams. Most of the cars had been ridden hard and put away wet, as the cowboy poets would say: rebuilt titles, smacked bumpers, and troubled maintenance histories the order of the day. Moving up the price range would have cleared these out, but to make any move I needed a screaming deal. Late in July I thought I found one: a spearmint-green car with a nice interior that did not smell of dogs or shoe polish, smooth running and no obvious postdrome from its allegedly minor accident. A pleasant young Asian woman greeted me with a baby on her hip, shining with happy young mom color. She didn’t own the car, but handed me the keys and asked for nothing in return. I opened and closed doors, rifled through the glove box, purred around Tacoma’s southern regions in the summer sun. I shelled out a few bucks of gas at a well-kept Arco that reminded me of long-ago high school summers: the girls leaping out of cars running a thin spectrum of deep trailer to middling class trash, tanned and long-haired and bikini-topped, their cutoffs far more cut off than when I was in school.
It felt good. The sick, calm thrill of realizing an offer satisfied my requirements came and straddled my shoulders. Back at her apartment, I flipped through manuals, eyed the weld in the front corner where the car had been hit. The woman re-emerged more harried, struggling to get in her flip flops as her baby struggled, trying to talk with me but then giving an embarrassed smile as she excused herself and turned away. When she turned back her shirt was somehow unbuttoned enough to let the now-engaged baby reach her breast while at the same time covering it and the baby. She resumed where she had left off: yes, was in the front, I wasn’t with him, leaning down with the baby and pointing. Yes, yes, your number, call him with questions.
People dislike Craigslist because it exposes them to gritty reality. That day it proved that yes, women can multitask.
I went to a state park not far from where I once lived, walking out onto the beach with the dogs and the kids on boogieboards. You can buy that car. It felt like the college afternoon in a Target and realizing no one could say no to my buying a candy bar. I left for New York in a week. I wanted to wait.
As the wheels started going back on my life, I tested expanding out into it in small steps. Mid-July I had resumed reviewing Craigslist, sometimes including dealer ads, mostly not. A friend accompanied me to see what seemed like a sure thing, a 2004 Prius at a dealership. It was red and ran like the transmission was full of bees. My friend’s expression at the engine starting up was all I needed to see. Then a guy with a gold one I met in a mall parking lot who seemed like Willy Loman with his five-year chip. It’s a very good car. A very good car. We want it to go to the right person, the right time, the right…you know, the spirit lines up. It rode like important bolts had been replaced by bread bag twist ties. A guy on the phone who seemed irate I called. A very friendly man who wanted to keep talking, but was all the way in Moscow, Idaho: me and my brother, we find ’em, fix ’em up. Very good cars. I’d take one over a truck any day of the week, I sure would. Thanks, I told them. Thanks, but no thanks.
A promising black 2008 Prius pops up: full everything, low miles, $9800. The seller is an older woman leaving the country for retirement, but in a month. Her upscale apartment building sits adjacent to a tony park and above yoga studios and a fufu yogurt brewpub sort of place: one of Seattle’s privileged neighborhoods. The car is nearly perfect: every maintenance record, tire chains, and an emergency kit built as a smooth wood box. Nearly perfect because the driver’s door was smacked and does not close quite right. In her older lady way she has the bodywork warranty papers in hand, both of us straining to read them in the dim parking garage, All the President’s Men style. It feels like a yes, but I want to think about it. She wants to sell it but have delivery delayed, to avoid renting a car for her final stateside weeks. She is a kind, small woman who has flown a desk her whole life and now is ready to live. We’ll both think about it.
This is the first reality test. From out of late adolescence the moment of buying a car breaches again–the biggest thing imaginable. Buying this car is lighting the fuse, pulling the trigger, no going back. Black is the color of solidity, inverse purity, shame but also night, where the stars live. Buying this car will end an era and start a new one, but it won’t be the first one like Little Blue was.
I email the next day. The car is gone. A couple that morning was more sure than me and gave her cash on the spot. She says she’s sorry, that she appreciates coming to look, being willing to accommodate her needs. I feel the nausea and the relief of one getting away. I can delay the non-emergency some more. Such moments are instructive.
Months of half-looking pass as I consider. I loan a friend money, denting my savings. Do I really need a new car? Have I been hypnotized by Prius tech allure? What’s the wisdom of spending nine grand or so to cut my gas spending by half. I could just take the bus and pay in time instead. Guilt overlays too: a new car was the last thing my ex suggested, a way to break out of old patterns, drop old weight. What dishonor is it to take her advice now, two years divorced? I can anticipate the counter: what the hell are you talking about? I change Little Blue’s oil.
Late on a Thursday evening, a Prius ad appears: 2005, 90,000 miles, well-cared-for. The pictures are in focus, well-composed, and show a shiny, hoppy-beer colored car. It has every option available for a 2005 Prius: keyless entry, super-duper traction control, a robot lady that reads directions. A certainty drives my fingers in cool command. The seller replies immediately. I agree to see it tomorrow, Friday, after work.
West Seattle is a relaxed complexity: zillion dollar homes and condos on the northern and western beaches, glare-eyed windows forever gaping at the Olympics; close but unjumbled shops and buildings along California Avenue and centering on the Alaska Junction nexus, where the red lights allow for jaywalking; inland valleys of modest bungalows, The address is for a neighborhood I haven’t explored: a high bluff overlooking the Sound, the homes large on large lots, curbless asphalt streets. The home is frazzled from summer but the backyard garden is freshly painted redwood deck, hot tub, flagstone, plants in glazed pots. The guy who answers the door is cleanly semi-shaven, shorts with a belt, huaraches. The pleasant, girlish voice confirms the gayness long before he introduces his partner, who is quiet, smiling, and orotund. The place feels like a late 50s movie set, the heroine and her cigarette holder indefinitely delayed.
Yes, well, we just love the car. Couldn’t have been better for us. Let me bring it around. The deck is warm and chalky against my feet, the big partner reading an actual newspaper in a deck chair, leaning back like my grandfather did. I can smell the sea.
As is Prius typical, the car is parked soundlessly and left on. We engage in the usual kabuki as I look it over, roles defined long ago when humans traded sharp stones. The car is gay couple immaculate, pristine, smelling of new car and a little closed-in fustiness. All the doors close with a reassuring, pressure-modulated whunk. The tonneau cover, missing on so many others, is installed and covers the luggage area with a competent zzzzip! The glove box is full of dealership-done maintenance receipts. These are the kinds of owners who pay $50 to get the wiper blades replaced. Every 5000 mile interval is accounted for.
The original sticker is at the bottom: in 2005, this car went for almost $25,000. They are asking $8500. Well, Kelly Blue Book said that was the price. I was kinda surprised, but there it is. In retrospect, I think this is the point where all the rods and cams slide into place: I’m buying the car.
My driving off alone leaves him nonplussed: call us if you get lost. I turn off the radio to listen for…noises? bats? sounds of imminent failure? The car makes its iconic aurora borealis zoooooo and zeeeeee. It is tight, baby, tight, biting into corners, holding true on panic stops. Friday sunset plays over the trees, golden light scattering over the exterior shine. A few minutes drive proves there’s nothing wrong with it. The only tiny, minor thing is I wish it was a less bland color.
A kitchen deal is made: I will return with $500 in cash and get the rest of the money next week. Tearing off to a nearby Safeway I am gratified the ATM trusts me to spit out that much cash. I am saying yes and my disturbance that this is happening so fast is at a distance. In a dusky kitchen that could have been The Beav’s, the semi-shaven man writes out a receipt.
Driving home I realize what I have done. Little Blue purrs on no different than before. A roadwork crew has moved off, freeing both lanes, and the sun is long with summer in the grass. Nothing has changed and everything has changed.
The week is the usual slow rush of getting up, going to work, rushed dinners, evenings of writing or class or something else, getting to bed. On Wednesday the money is moved between savings accounts; on Friday, in a rush to not be so late for work, I am the first person in the credit union. Yeah, they’re great cars, the guy says when I tell him what goes on the memo line.
In high school, I bought my first computer. My friend Matt worked in a nursing home laundry, the machines whirring and thunking as I stopped and showed him the check I had written. The check was green safety paper–the cheapest the bank offered–and writing a check cost a quarter.
Eight hundred forty seven dollars is what I remember, but I really don’t remember. I remember the linty heat, the fluorescent light, the sense that real things were happening now. Man, he said. We’d never seen such concentrated money, unable to believe summers of lawnmowing and bagging groceries could ever pay off. But here it was. We knew the rules of money–that it was a thing to hoard and bring out the worst in people, that there was never enough, that we would never be people to live on the high hills and have things happen because we were displeased–but I wanted to share this as much as I could. Things were changing all the time as we were being launched headlong into whatever was next. But this was something we launched together.
I fetch my friend Oscar from his current job, disassemble his bike and stuff it in Little Blue’s trunk. The setting sun forms a tangent with the West Seattle Bridge, rich and orange, promising a long descent to night. The gay guys call: they are delayed at the airport, but make ourselves at home.
We sit on their porch with the odd sense of temporary entitlement that comes with permission, like in high school watching a neighbor’s house with a pool. Mostly we talk about work and politics, some about my divorce and guilt, but only a little. Don’t tell yourself she made it easy for you, he says. I am tired, fuzzy, a little disbelieving. The red deck and pleasant air remind me of the rare times growing up when sitting outside was a delight. The guys rumble up in their giant diesel work truck, wave as they shuffle their friends around the front. The guy in the same semi-trimmed beard and huaraches waves me in to the same dim kitchen.
I give the check, sign here, here. He signs, tears, hands me the green title paper. It is surprisingly banal: not even card stock, the design pedestrian, exuding no great significance. The powers that be are not so concerned with cars as they are with houses.
And then it’s done, and I realize this. He shakes my hand. A cat meows. All the keys are in it.
Oscar waits in his chair like the old man on the mountaintop, content with the wind in the leaves. So you have a new car? He smiles. He drives Little Blue and I get in the golden spaceship, figuring out the mirrors, turning the radio off, adjusting the seat. It is strange to look out, the sightlines all different. I raise the belt as high as it goes, but the seat does not go lower. It’s strange to be so high. Reverse beeps like an alarm clock dump truck and then I am purring down the road: silent, electric, like a silver dream.
Oscar expertly maneuvers Little Blue into my oddball garage. The Prius goes near the gas meters. Late summer’s endless sunset blooms as we look it over. It’s a nice champagne color, he says. I feel better hearing this–it’s not a brown car any more.
Look, you don’t have to buy me dinner for fifteen minutes of driving. I buy him dinner in the dark, wood-paneled place the trains stopped at a hundred years ago. It’s early Friday and the place is empty, the music not too loud. For only eighty-five-hundred dollars, you got that car for free.
I drive him home and we extract his bike from Little Blue. This is the house with the attic that sheltered me, the stairs leading up to the same blinking-light man-atelier where stooping is required. There’s a bed and furniture now. The kitchen has a new vent hood. Everything is the same and a little different. It’s dark now but his front stoop is still warm, no wind in the trees. Yeah, two years ago now. Wow. No panicked calls to ask if everything is all right, if I did the right thing. We’re in our forties on a stoop on a Friday and everything is fine.
Weeks go on. The Prius is bigger and I parallel park badly, squeeze into work’s one free carpool spot gingerly, always leaving the tail sticking out. Slowly, I get used to driving it. My first tank of gas is 53 miles per gallon.
I am busy with work and weekend classes and trying to get some summer in. With Little Blue I sat at the kitchen table and read the manual cover to cover, sprayed Scotchguard three times on the seats and Armor All even more on every vinyl surface. The Prius has five manuals, and the one I half-read is mostly yellow warnings. I put air in the tires, clean the rear windshield and get the rag so dirty I just throw it away. Waxing it would be smart, but the water beads well, and I leave it alone. It’s shiny enough. It’s fine.
A Prius has long been unremarkable on Seattle streets and I cruise in practical anonymity with the rest: zooooooo, zeeeeeee. Days grow shorter. The $50 wiper blades work great.
A name is silly. Nobody names cars, and I only used Little Blue among select friends. But it is tradition. I think of frumpy, male names–Edgar, Wilbur–because the car looks dowdy. Champagne color works on me. For unknowable reasons, I think of Bradbury’s The Veldt, with lions gobbling inert viewers. Leona comes to mind, and then Molly.
I put it to Facebook but this is a formality. The name chooses itself.
Will I have this car 23 years? I don’t know. The name completes the circle, but we never know how big the circle is.
Matt and I are driving the 1971 Ford Pinto that has become mine. We have spent a fall afternoon in his garage, his father and brother poking at it, adding hoses, adjusting timing, and the car runs with newfound confidence. Thunder has boomed through the afternoon, violet-white brilliance cracking through the mulberry trees. Night falls and Matt’s father pulls on his Chesterfield. Yah, seems okay. His accent is all Brooklyn. Okay foah high school.
A canyon-sized crack runs down the dash. The Philco radio is AM with one speaker center dash, and the disintegrated door handles have been replaced with leather straps. The engine coughs to life and we back out, slowly, into the rain-fresh streets.
Kids on bikes play in the street turned to river, halfway to the high school. We take turns running up and down the gullies, splashing them, the water roaring in the wheel wells, the kids screaming in delight. Storms boom and porch lights shine and the shirtless kids are soaked and we keep soaking them, laughing out the windows. It doesn’t matter that it’s just a Pinto, that we can’t think of anywhere to go. We have a car. We have a car.