By on September 23, 2010

When my father arrived at the accident scene, I was huddled in the back of Mom’s Nissan King Cab 4×4, head between my knees, just about managing not to cry. My sixteenth birthday present, a slick, five-speed Datsun/Nissan 200SX hatchback, was broken nearly in half and skewed across the middle of Ponset Street. The parked car I’d hit, a Nissan Stanza, had been launched up the curb, past two houses, coming to rest in the lawn of the third house down. We didn’t know to call it drifting back then. We called it powersliding, and I’d been determined to master it on my first legal day behind the wheel. I’d been doing nearly sixty miles an hour, full opposite lock, in some vague control of the two-tone Datsun, when I realized that it was legal to park a car right where I was headed, and that somebody had done so.

The old man appeared in the window of Mom’s truck. I couldn’t look at him.

“You okay?” he inquired.

“Yes, Sir.” There was a pause.

“Don’t expect to drive again. No time soon.”

“No, Sir, I don’t.” And, in fact, it was a year and a half later before I got another car. That car was a 1980 Marquis Brougham Coupe. Blood red on the inside and out. White Landau roof. Two thousand, two hundred, and ninety-nine dollars was what Dad paid. There wasn’t a straight panel on the car, and it ran down the road as crooked as the dealer who called it “a clean, two-owner example.” Maybe we got ripped off, but without the Marquis I wouldn’t have known Tanya.

That summer of 1989 I was recovering from a broken neck and crushed legs suffered in a bike accident. I was six foot two, down from six foot three thanks to leg surgery, and I weighed one hundred and twenty-five pounds. During the day I worked downtown at David Hobbs BMW, driving the parts truck and eating the forty-nine-cent hamburgers at the McDonald’s down the street. When the day was done, I drove to the housing projects on the West Side of Columbus to hang out with my old BMX pals who lived there. We’d drive around, look for trouble, look to meet girls.

I met Tanya at a dance club on Sullivant Road, next to a meat packing plant and a refinery. The clubs didn’t care as much about age then. She was five foot eight. Red head. Big eyes. Neither she nor her body possessed the slightest bit of naivete. She danced with me, told me stories in her rural Ohio accent. Lived in a thirty-thousand-dollar house with her grandparents. Mom and Dad were long gone. She was out of school, working at a Rax fast-food joint. No plans for the future, not really.

Well, I couldn’t bring her home to meet my folks, but I could just not go home myself, so that’s what I did, night after night, taking her out for dinner, parking somewhere, dropping her off to the waiting grandparents, then sleeping on a floor in somebody’s subsidized apartment before returning to work in the same clothes. Mom left messages for me with my friends. Dad said that when he came back from New York he wanted to talk to me. He reminded me that I was leaving for school in a month and that I had promised to save my paychecks for my expenses.

The Marquis had problems. The Variable Venturi carburetor wouldn’t run much more than thirty minutes at a time without stalling out and requiring a cool-off. Nobody would fix it. The Mercury and Ford shops in town wouldn’t work on VV carb cars. The fuel tank was full of dirt and I learned how to change a filter by the side of the road. Kept two spares in the glove compartment, along with the wrench and flatblade I needed to change them out.

Tanya was free with her body, as much as I expected her to be anyway, but her soul was locked somewhere I couldn’t reach. She wouldn’t take any gifts. Wouldn’t admit to being my girlfriend. She told me to stop coming in to Rax to see her. She said she and I weren’t traveling in the same direction. Said that I should go to school and never think about her again. The dome light in the Marquis didn’t work so I didn’t see her face when she got out, closed the door, and ran up the steps to her house that last time. I know she was covering her eyes with her hands.

I was driving down the dark two-lane home to the suburbs when the alternator light went on and the big Merc came to a halt by the side of the road. No further to go. And before I knew it, I was beating that shiny plastic wheel with both hands until there was dark red blood on the bright red velour. I screamed and screamed but there was nobody to listen. I opened the glovebox for a replacement fuel filter and realized I’d used my last one two days back. Curled up and went to sleep on the passenger floor. In the morning I walked to the auto parts store, bought a filter, and fired up the 302 again. Might as well go to work.

Old McKinley Road by the Columbus quarries is marked forty-five but I was running that Marquis at eighty, full-throttle in the empty oncoming lane, steaming past traffic with all the fury I could muster, thinking about that girl and my job and the mess I’d made of my life, when a pickup truck pulled out from a side road and faced me head-on. I stepped on the coupe’s brake pedal and she turned right around, locked up on all four corners. I entered the ditch at full speed backwards. Took my hands off the wheel and folded them across my chest. This was more a time for prayer than for further steering.

I saw the pickup flash past my drivers window and then the Marquis bounced backwards out of the ditch. Spun a few times. Came to rest in the middle of the road, facing the right direction, straddling the double-yellow. All the traffic around me was stopped. I waved apologetically at everyone and continued to the dealership. A BMW 528e followed me all the way in. He’d seen the big roundel on my back window. He went in and complained to the service manager, who listened to the story and smiled in polite disbelief. Didn’t matter. I had already turned in my notice. Worked my last two weeks. Saved every dime. Sold some stuff. “Go to school,” my father said, “and forget about that tramp.”

It was nineteen years later when I walked into a hair salon and this sassy redhead bounded up to take my name. Five foot eight. Big eyes. Neither she nor her body possessed the slightest bit of naivete. And her name wasn’t Tanya, but I didn’t expect it to be. She rides in my Town Car as careless and free as I could want. It’s okay with me. In real life not all the loose ends wrap up nice and tight, and that’s okay with me, too.

In memory of Gordon Baxter.

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37 Comments on “The Red Marquis, The Redheaded Girl, and the Red Mist...”


  • avatar
    jocularity

    Just Awesome – best TTAC post ever.  Brings back memories . . .

  • avatar
    jmo

    That’s some mighty fine writin’!

    That said, some might mock me for preferring a car with the latest safety features, but as long as kids like young Jack are on the road, I’ll take all the safety features I can get.

  • avatar
    Loser

    Very good story, I can relate.

  • avatar
    zbnutcase

    Excellent story, Jack.

  • avatar
    Contrarian

    Good stuff. Like me, you were just damn lucky to survive your first couple of years behind the wheel. Or were we more skilled than we give ourselves credit for?

    Nah, just lucky I guess.

  • avatar
    Educator(of teachers)Dan

    I can sum up the way I feel about Jack’s writting in one sentence.  “If Jack Baruth wrote menus I’d read every word, even if I had just ate.”

  • avatar
    gslippy

    Great story.  I replaced the awful Variable Venturi in my 82 LTD (white 2-door with red velour interior) with a 2-barrel Holley and added dual exhaust.  It took a lot of tinkering to get the choke, throttle, and kickdown linkages to all harmonize, but they finally did.
     
    The VV carb was definitely one of Ford’s Deadly Sins.  Ours had gotten so bad that my wife was afraid to drive the car, since it was unable to merge safely with traffic.

    • 0 avatar
      86er

      My dad had to replace the VV carb in his 85 Marquis.  With the cop motor there was no excuse that car shouldn’t have gone like a bat out of hell. 

    • 0 avatar

      @gslippy Wait a sec, aren’t you one of the people giving us grief over P.A.W.?   If so, you can’t blame the LTD for its VV carb, because there’s more to the Panther than that monstrosity. CFI replaced that awful thing in 1984, maybe 1983.  Plenty of happy Panther owners after that.
      If not, excuse my ranting.

  • avatar
    john.fritz

    Thanks Jack. Another poignant story of real people, real life.

  • avatar
    tankinbeans

    6 foot 2, 125 pounds in my house is “Needs a sammich” territory.

  • avatar
    Mark MacInnis

    Are you sure you didn’t grow up in Derry, Maine?

  • avatar
    tsofting

    Great story, Jack! I am beginning to understand why you have Panther-blood in your veins, so this comment comes from a blood brother. Been there, done that, well at least the variable venturi experience. I guess that was one of those ideas that was great on paper, but Ford didn’t count enough beans to execute it properly. I had one in my then-brand-new 79 Country Squire(!). It ran as well as could be expected for 2 or 4 years, then it startet requiring pedal-to-the-metal, manual downshifting and what not to keep it running. The ailment of the VV was the seal that created the vacuum that controlled the size of the venturi. Once the seal was replaced, it ran as new (which wasn’t all that neck-snapping).

  • avatar
    dastanley

    JB, I appreciate the fact that you make yourself very vulnerable when you write these stories with real people and real events that in some way we can all relate to.  I’m not so sure I would have the balls to write about some of my teenaged fuckups, my angst, my hurts, my victories, etc.  More power to you.  You certainly have a great gift of writing – all the best writers seem to have pain in their lives. 

  • avatar
    H Man

    Did you actually sit out the entire year and a half without driving?
     
    In any event, another damn fine read.  Props!

  • avatar

    What is it about women upsetting us that leads one to so many traffic accidents? …

  • avatar
    bomberpete

    Jack, you’re a gifted writer.
    On the day I turned 17, I got my license validated at the DMV and went home. The old man handed me the keys to the ’78 Century and said “I know you’ve been waiting to drive on your own.” Within 15 minutes, I was re-enacting a chase scene from “White Lighning” down a dirt road at about 50 mph when I went up a hill and ran over a fence. The car was fine, but it cost me $500, a 60-day loss of driving privileges, and my parent’s trust.  I didn’t learn, though. I was the speed-freak equivalent of Lindsay Lohan. In the next two months I broke a rear axle attempting a hand-brake turn and got nailed for 78mph in a 55mph while on probation, costing me my license for 90 days. I took up bicycling and learned to calm down and drive. It was another two years before I bought a car.
    Your redheaded companion hit the right notes, too. Those summers when you’re about to go to college, or home between school years, really reveal a lot about how we change. All of us, men or women, have had the experience of passing the time by dating someone going in one direction while we’re going the other. It’s bittersweet, and you’ve detailed it beautifully.

    • 0 avatar
      econobiker

      “All of us, men or women, have had the experience of passing the time by dating someone going in one direction while we’re going the other.”
       
      Well said and experienced here too…

  • avatar
    majo8

    Great story Jack.  If I could write as well as you, I’d write pretty much the same story, except the car would be a 2 door 75 LTD and the redhead would be 5’6″…….
     
    I enjoy the Columbus references too — I lived there for 8 years in the 90′s.  Maybe someday you could write about the famous local car dealer and the curling iron…….
     
     

  • avatar
    Domestic Hearse

    Just shows, gotta know when she’s just target practice, and when you’re shootin’ for keeps.

    Which is it this time?

    BTW, thanks for dredging up the memories of my misspent youth — and the shudders I keep supressed from my several near-death experiences at the wheel. (You call that a power slide? We managed to take not one parked car out, but two. Plus a motorcycle. Bang-bang-bang, like dominoes. Each belonging to the same man. Who came out of his house, armed and pissed. But not as pissed as our own fathers, who luckily arrived after the police, or we’d have been killed…by someone. Not sure who. But killed, nonetheless.)

    The redhead reference also illicited a sharp pain, too. Different directions, indeed. It seems, girls take target practice just as much as the boys.

  • avatar

    I’m biased on the subject, but redheaded women are terrific.

  • avatar
    Boff

    This was a great read. The comparison in vibe to a certain New England novelist is not misplaced.
     
    One thing, though…I thought kids only called their dad “sir” in Twisted Sister videos…

  • avatar
    PeriSoft

    Christ almighty, Baruth, you really do type words in the right order. Particularly:

    “She said she and I weren’t traveling in the same direction. Said that I should go to school and never think about her again. The dome light in the Marquis didn’t work…”

    The juxtoposition there, followed immediately by the switch back to the girl, was fantastic. My only suggestion would be to take out “that last time”. It’s clear from context anyway, and a little bit ’40s Hollywood. But it only stands out because the rest is so outstanding: in topical writing like this, or, say, sports writing, there are very few writers who can treat the main subject with such subtlety that someone who cares nothing for it would never notice it’s there, but aficionados see the meaning anyway. You’re one of them.

    • 0 avatar
      Jack Baruth

      PeriSoft, I agree with you that the treacle is coming thick and fast by then… but I wrote this after re-reading Gordon Baxter’s collection. I’d recommend it to anyone, if only for the sentence that begins,
       
      “I lift the fine old dog into the truck, and remember…”
       
      Bax never hesitated to script the whole thing in the most sentimental way possible :)

    • 0 avatar
      PeriSoft

      Hah! Ok, I can understand that. I tend to unconsciously match the style of whatever I’ve been reading recently (lately I’ve only been reading The Economist. It makes for very dry forum posts). You should have seen the high school history paper I wrote immediately after reading The Arabian Nights. My teacher was probably quite confused.

  • avatar

    You should sell that to GQ. Or someone. Amazing!

  • avatar
    Moparman426W

    It would have been very easy to remove that VV carb and replace it with a standard ford 2bbl.

  • avatar
    JustPassinThru

    There’s nothing I can add…except that you’ve got a superb gift for prose.
     
    You say you’re channeling Gordon Baxter.  I’ll take your word…but to weave a story that well, no matter how true…you can honestly call it nothing but your own.
     
    I, too, used to read Baxter’s column in Car and Driver back in my teens.  I tried my hand a fiction and story-telling…but it didn’t come off  so well.
     
    A tip of the hat from my tiny little corner.

  • avatar
    -Nate

    I just found this ~

    GREAT STUFF ! .

    I too traveled a similar road and am *very* lucky indeed to still be alive .

    I spent my entire Father’s Day with my Son who , at one point , sadly asked me why his Mother cannot open her mouth without lying and causing tremendous grief for herself and everyone else nearby .

    I dunno Son , she wasn’t a Red head but she was just like that and being young and in experienced , I married her anyway , our Son is the only good thing out of those wasted 15 years .

    KEEP WRITING ! .

    -Nate


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